Mary, Queen of Scots (1971)

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There was a swathe of period dramas in the wake of the 1968 riots – perhaps there was something comforting about a retreat into the past, no matter how bloody or violent. Director Charles Jarrott made something of a specialty of this in British cinema and this somewhat by-the-numbers evocation of one of the great rivalries for the crown boasts stellar performances by Vanessa Redgrave as the eponymous Catholic beauty and Glenda Jackson as Protestant Elizabeth I. It doesn’t trouble with a lot of truth although Patrick McGoohan has a field day playing Mary’s half-brother James, the wannabe Scots ruler, and there’s some interesting bed action between Timothy Dalton as Lord Darnley, planted by Elizabeth to seduce and destroy Mary, and her Italian advisor, Ian Holm, in a tale rife with adultery and bisexuality. The last twenty minutes focuses on a fabricated meeting between the two women, all the better to sweeten the dramatic pill, to a swoony John Barry score and delicious photography by Christopher Challis. Off with her head! Written by John Hale.

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The Other Boleyn Girl (2008)

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Peter Morgan’s ironed out some of the flummery from Philippa Gregory’s Tudor bestseller, already adapted by the BBC a few years earlier. The Boleyns need money so dad Mark Rylance plots with his brother in law the Duke of Norfolk (the awful, honking David Morrissey) to whore his daughter Anne (Natalie Portman) to Henry VIII (Eric Bana), that great ugly philanderer whose wife just will not reproduce a healthy son. Trouble is, this rather one-note Henry gets a look at Anne’s sister Mary (Scarlett Johansson) and his feelings betray him so he decides to have her first – and she goes on to bear him a bastard son, just as the scheming Anne gets her claws into him. But when Anne continues to refuse Henry bedding rights he sodomises her and she needs Mary’s sympathy as she tries to rid him of his wife and gain the throne and when she does she will do anything to bear a healthy son … If this never reaches the powerful emotional heights it seems to be striving for, it’s a moderately gripping and quite streamlined interpretation¬†of the power plays that went on in royal circles and proves what Diana, Princess of Wales discovered – life at court can be nasty, brutish and short. Divorced, beheaded …

The Black Book (1949)

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Also known as Reign of Terror, this is an incredibly exciting tale of the French Revolution. For those more familiar with his 50s Westerns and 60s epics, it may come as a surprise that this noir film, which is widely seen as an allegory for the HUAC blacklisting, is from director Anthony Mann. Not so much when you learn one of the writers is Philip Yordan, beefing up the original script by Aeneas Mackenzie and you realise this is no ordinary action flick. (Yordan spent the blacklist era outside the USA, churning out his own work and fronting for others for whom his home served as a refuge.) Stunningly shot by John Alton, Robert Cummings is a serviceable hero opposite villainous Robespierre (Richard Basehart) and Arlene Dahl was never lovelier as the seemingly duplicitous Madelon. Arnold Moss is terrifying as Fouche, the police enforcer. William Cameron Menzies constructed the sets from the leftovers of Joan of Arc (1948) and the tension in the hunt for the eponymous list of Robespierre’s enemies is palpable. Masterful filmmaking.