Mary Queen of Scots (1971)

Mary Queen of Scots (1971)

In 1972, the New York Times film critic, Vincent Canby, wrote that Mary Queen of Scots (1971), was “solemn, well-groomed, and dumb.” This, even though it was well received by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as well as the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. Vanessa Redgrave won the Oscar for Best Actress. Five other nominations came from the Academy, in addition to the Oscar for Best Art Direction.

Although a better screenplay and skillful editing could have made the movie less solemn and less dumb, the movie, available on DVD*, is worth watching.

Director and producer have more influence over a finished film project, so director Charles Jarrott should be held accountable for the sappy good-girl-as-victim portrait of Queen Mary Stuart. Hal B. Wallis should have made sure that the project was properly financed so that obvious jump-cuts in the action and gaps in, for example, the musical score, would not have been so obvious. In spite of these shortcomings, Wallis manages to serve up some worthy imagery and some themes worth contemplating.

In Mary Stuart, we have the Madonna, Queen of Heaven. In Elizabeth Regina, we have the imperious, earthbound Gloriana, a goddess who becomes a whore to pragmatism when she decides to execute her cousin, Mary Stuart. The Catholic Scots queen threatens the autonomy of England and its decidedly Protestant rule, so Elizabeth takes the low road, in the end.

Imperfect as it may be, the movie is a “textbook” study in how to use color, costume, hair and makeup to develop characterization. The Margaret Furse costumes are flowing for Mary and structured for Elizabeth. Make-up gives Mary a romantic look with loose flowing hair, Elizabeth’s hair is corkscrew curly, every strand in its proper place.

Here, we also get the master course with Glenda Jackson as Elizabeth I and Vanessa Redgrave as Mary. These queens are polar opposites, yet the two together create a wholeness of expression that really is extraordinary. If they are over-the-top, both queens are still likeable, though one wishes Mary had more brains and Elizabeth more heart. Even so, Jackson and Redgrave are the saving grace of this film.

John Hale’s screenplay takes poetic license to the point of confabulation–an unnecessary and willful tampering with the facts of history and biography. In the process, he does a great disservice to both Queens.

First of all, he allows them to meet twice, even though in real life they never met. He puts stylized speech into their mouths, making Mary seem passive and a bit stupid. Elizabeth comes across as heartless and rude. Pablum comes from the mouths of the drop-dead-gorgeous male actors–Patrick McGoohan as James Stuart (Mary’s half-brother), Nigel Davenport as Bothwell, (Mary’s protector whom she eventually marries), and Timothy Dalton as Lord Darnley (Mary’s second and possibly gay husband.)

Hale creates out of thin air a homosexual relationship between Darnley and Rizzio, Mary’s closest friend and confidante. And then, there’s the funny first kiss with Mary and Bothwell, a cold little depiction of what I’ve always considered a highly combustible chemical reaction between the two lovers. Jarrott fails miserably on this score. Darnley dies and in the next scene, Mary is making out with Bothwell, but it’s blasé. Mary and Bothwell faced down strict societal taboos in order to be together—not something a sixteenth-century queen would have taken lightly.

With swelling music, heavenly light from above flooding the face of Queen Mary who is dressed in gloriously Cardinal red gown, Jarrott’s ending seems melodramatic if not outright insane. Even so, his depiction is in keeping with the facts of Mary’s execution. It’s true Mary was beheaded for attempting to overthrow her cousin, Elizabeth. And, Mary did actually dress herself up in a bright red bodice with bright red sleeves for the execution. She went down in style, if not without a fight, perhaps making a statement about her passion for Catholicism.

So yes, color is significant. Red is for passion  (and also martyrdom). Male characters in white ruffs and black doublets signify judgment. Gray is the color of deliberation– Queen Elizabeth wears a stunning gray velvet gown in at least two scenes where she considers whether to protect or murder her cousin, Mary. I kid you not. It’s worth watching the whole movie just to see Glenda Jackson in that costume. No wonder Furse won awards.

It’s all played out against a backdrop of real English and Scottish castles and incredibly designed sets while the two great actresses gallop across the English countryside – a sort of Walter Scott dreamland.

*NOTE: Click on the DVD image and go right to Amazon.

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