Mary, Queen of Scots
directed by Charles Jarrott
(Universal, 1971)

Mary's tale is not a happy one, but it's the stuff of fascinating history. And Mary, Queen of Scots does an excellent job of bringing the days of Elizabeth of England and Mary of Scotland to vivid, colorful life.

Vanessa Redgrave received a well-deserved Oscar nomination for her portrayal of the tragic queen. The film begins in France, shortly before the death of Mary's husband, King Francis (Richard Denning). Unwelcome at the French court after his death, she returns to Scotland, where her bastard brother James Stuart (Patrick McGoohan) rules as her regent. There she is quickly wrapped in intrigue, first as her own brother plots to keep her from wielding real power, and later as her own Protestant lords move to prevent her from spreading Catholicism. Mary is at first bewildered by court politics, ruled primarily by her heart and her desire for the comforts and fineries of France -- but she grows steadily into her crown as events force her to act and react or lose her throne for good.

Of course, Mary's actions in Scotland are of grave interest to her cousin to the south, Elizabeth. With very few changes to the script, this movie could have been named for her, and Glenda Jackson does a marvelous job in that role. She is more regal and more cunning than Mary, colder but not without good humor; she is every bit a queen, with a strong right hook and a lusty appetite for her master of horse.

Mary, Queen of Scots is a fine costumed drama, filmed on location in Scotland, England and France, and filled with pomp and pageantry throughout. Likewise, there is much plotting, intrigue and murder as the events of history unfold. (However, while history records none, the movie assumes two secret meetings between Elizabeth and Mary. While questionable factually, the plot does not suffer for the assumption.)

The courts of England and Scotland are filled with excellent performances, including Ian Holm as Mary's trusted adviser, David Riccio; Timothy Dalton as the arrogant Henry, the English lord of Darnley, Mary's second husband and short-lived king consort; Nigel Davenport as Lord Bothwell, Mary's most loyal supporter and third husband; Trevor Howard as William Cecil, Elizabeth's humorless and calculating counselor; and Robert James, who makes a brief but impressive appearance as the hellfire Protestant leader John Knox.

By film's end, Mary has grown some fire and backbone, but it's too little, too late to guard against treachery in Scotland and royal opposition in England. Mary, Queen of Scots is excellent historical film-making which stands up well to the test of time.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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