Sunday, March 18, 2012

Mary, Queen of Scots (1971)

          A dense historical drama bursting with sex, treachery, and violence, Mary, Queen of Scots features enough narrative for a miniseries, so viewers not already versed in the backstory of the British royal family (myself included) might have difficulty grasping all of the picture’s nuances. That said, the broad strokes are (relatively) simple. In the year 1560, 18-year-old Mary Stuart (Vanessa Redgrave) ascends to the French throne after the death of her husband, the Gallic monarch. Stuart is also, by birthright, the queen of Scotland. Advisors send Mary to Scotland as a means of ensuring her security (female leaders were perpetually under threat in Mary’s era), but Mary’s return to Scotland alarms her cousin, England’s Queen Elizabeth I (Glenda Jackson).
          A fervent Protestant, Elizabeth recognizes that Mary’s potential claim to the English throne could make her a rallying point for Catholic factions looking to reclaim power over the British Empire. Before long, the respective queens are locked in mortal battle. Others caught in the palace intrigue include Mary’s ambitious brother, James Stuart (Patrick McGoohan), who believes he can manipulate his sister and claim Scotland for himself; David Riccio (Ian Holm), a clever representative of the Vatican who aids Mary; and Lord Damley (Timothy Dalton), an aristocrat sent by Elizabeth to tempt Mary into a marriage with political advantages for Elizabeth.
          It’s quite a lot to follow, though the principal focus is the contrast between the two queens: Elizabeth is a master strategist who remains unwed lest a husband diminish her stature, whereas Mary is a naïve optimist who tumbles into impetuous romances until time and tragedy make her wise.
          The leading performances are impeccable. Jackson rips through dialogue with wicked glee, adroitly illustrating how Elizabeth had to be smarter than every man around her simply to survive, and yet Jackson also shows intense undercurrents of longing and rage; though onscreen for less time than Redgrave, Jackson commands the picture with a deeply textured performance. Redgrave gradually introduces layers of complexity behind her luminous beauty, succinctly demonstrating the maturation of a woman in impossible circumstances. As for the men surrounding these powerful actresses, they’re a mixed bag. Dalton and Holm play their arch roles well, though each succumbs to florid excesses. McGoohan is quietly insistent in his vaguely villainous role, and Nigel Davenport (as Mary’s protector, Lord Bothwell) gives a virile turn marked by equal amounts of bluster and bravery.
          The film looks fantastic, with immaculate costumes and sets creating a vivid sense of the story’s 16th-century milieu, and composer John Barry anchors key moments with a typically lush musical score. Mary, Queen of Scots may be too arcane for casual viewers—it’s not as accessible, for instance, as the ’60s royal dramas The Lion in Winter and A Man for All Seasons—and clarity suffers because the movie barrels through so many eventful decades. But as a showcase for great acting and as an introduction to an amazing historical figure, it’s well worth examining.

Mary, Queen of Scots: GROOVY

1 comment:

Cindylover1969 said...

According to Clive Hirschhorn's "The Universal Story," Mary and Elizabeth never actually met.