Mary Queen of Scots (2018)

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Should you murder me, remember you murder your sister… and you murder your queen!  Queen of France at 16 and widowed at 18, Catholic Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan) defies pressure to remarry. Instead, she returns to her native Scotland to reclaim her rightful throne with the aim of also taking the English throne which is her birthright, guided by her adviser Bothwell (Martin Compston). However, Scotland and England fall under the rule of her cousin, the compelling Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie) the illegitimate daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. Each young Queen beholds her ‘sister’ in fear and fascination. Mary has to deal with the ambitions of her bastard half-brother James Murray (James McArdle) and succumbs to the charms of the bisexual Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden) in order to become a mother but his father (Brendan Coyle) has designs on power. Her reign attracts the hatred of Protestant reformer John Knox (David Tennant) who stirs up the natives against their tolerant Catholic ruler and calls her a whore. Elizabeth’s adviser Henry Cecil (Guy Pearce) carries out her bid to assist in driving a civil war designed to remove Mary from the throne… Do not play into their hands. Our hatred is precisely what they hope for. I know your heart has more within it than the men who counsel you. Adapted from John Guy’s biography by Beau Willimon, it may seem hasty to declare that despite its raft of historical inaccuracies this still has a lot to recommend it, even if its PC multiverse of many races and choose-your-own-perversion plays into the right-on millennial world rather than the well documented dour backdrop of sixteenth-century Scotland (things are ever thus there…). Willimon is of course responsible for Netflix’s House of Cards and knows his way around politics and other games of thrones so the focus on the women struggling against the counsel of conniving men drives the drama forward while the plotting literally gallops apace. With Tennant doing Knox as the Comical Ali of fundamentalist Protestantism the odds of us supporting the bastard English Queen are low to zero, despite the crosscutting suggesting links both emotional and physical between these young rivals. The Virgin Queen is in fact more in touch with the reality of both of their situations, surrounded by controlling men, as the fabricated meeting between them (a liberty also taken in the 1971 version) clarifies: she recognises that Mary’s beauty, bravery and motherhood are both her greatest assets and her deepest flaws and have led to her downfall. She herself is more man than woman, she declares – her reign has made her thus. Ronan plays Mary as a variation on Joan of Arc – a sharp military mind with a conscience as transparent as her pallor and bright blue eyes (albeit Willimon writes her as a feckless Marie Antoinette a lot of the time), while Robbie’s Queen is the one beset with the miseries of the pox and a devious court craven by her power. They are both tremendous but this is really Ronan’s show, as the title suggests. Pearce, Lowden and Compston are particularly good in their treacherous sideshows. Nonetheless it’s wonderful to see two of the best young actresses in the world leading a film of such affecting performances.  The final contrasting shots of Mary’s meeting with destiny and Elizabeth’s costumes and cosmetics literally solidifying into a stony inhuman edifice linger in the mind.  Directed by Josie Rourke. I know your heart has more within it than the men who counsel you

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Fire Over England (1937)

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Forgive him, Excellency. His father’s ashes blow in his eyes and he cannot see. Queen Elizabeth I (Flora Robson) is dealing with her country’s deteriorating relationship with Spain. Michael Ingolby (Laurence Olivier), a naval officer whose father was killed fighting the Spanish, volunteers to go undercover in the Spanish court when Hilary Vane (James Mason) is killed while spying but before the names of the conspirators are revealed.  He learns plans are afoot to send an armada to ambush the British navy. Meanwhile, the aging Elizabeth, who has fallen for the dashing Ingolby, struggles with his fixation on one of her beautiful ladies-in-waiting Cynthia (Vivien Leigh). In Spain things get complicated when Ingolby tells Elena (Tamara Desni) of his real identity and she tells her husband palace governor Don Pedro (Robert Newton)… In the Old, power. In the New, gold. The first time that Leigh was paired with Olivier in a vehicle tailored for her by Alexander Korda, this wonderful production is unfortunately shot in monochrome – a shame because the colour production stills of this gorgeous pair in each other’s arms are just swoonsome. Adapted from A.E.W. Mason’s novel by Clemence Dane and Sergei Nolbandov, this has a deal of wit, particularly a wonderful dinnertime disquisition on prudence by Ingolgy. Robson is superb as Queen Bess and Raymond Massey is excellent as Philip II. It’s effectively shot by James Wong Howe and scored by Richard Addinsell but languishes in comparison with the following year’s Technicolor Hollywood production The Adventures of Robin Hood. Directed by William K. Howard. Everybody should come to me first

Mary, Queen of Scots (1971)

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You are Queen of Scotland by birth, Queen of France by marriage and Queen of England by right. 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, the bastard daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. 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.