Even fans of historical epics might not know about Mary, Queen of Scots, Hal Wallis’s posh dramatization of the struggle between Mary Stuart and Elizabeth I starring Vanessa Redgrave and Glenda Jackson. The film was released at a time when the historical epic was on the way out, and wasn’t helped by a tepid critical response. It certainly is no masterpiece, but I like it more each time I watch it. Directed by Charles Jarrott, who also worked for Wallis on Anne of the Thousand Days, it represents an interesting turning point in the development of the large scale bio-pic.
Start with the opening credits. Under diffuse images of the Chateau of Chenonceau and its gardens, Redgrave sings a plaintive lament. Soon, Mary and King Francis II of France (her husband) run out in loose, gauzy period costume, jump into a row boat and begin to cavort photogenically. The movie starts, in other words, with its Elvira Madigan moment, laboriously trying to prove that it is cinematically “hip” and of course demonstrating exactly the opposite. (Anne of the Thousand Days, made only two years earlier, feels as if it comes from another era entirely. Jarrott was so far behind he was catching up.) Still, compared to the usual trumpet fanfares and self-important ostentation that normally initiate epics, it’s at least a different kind of opening.
My affection for the film is admittedly perverse, or at least idiosyncratic. While Wallis and company may have set out to show Mary as a free spirit destroyed by the machinations of those around her, the film ends up making her look like a royal nit wit, unworthy of her office, reliably capable of making only the most foolish of choices. Produced shortly after Glenda Jackson had made herself synonymous with the role of Elizabeth in the BBC series Elizabeth R (and written by John Hale, scenarist for that program’s first episode), every opportunity is given to the actresses to show off their ability with epigrammatic speechifying. While Elizabeth and Mary never met, Hale gives them two crackling scenes together to let the sparks fly, and I’m a sucker for tart, nasty dialog. If Elizabeth inevitably comes off smarter, quicker and wittier, it isn’t because Redgrave is no match for Jackson. Mary is no match for Elizabeth.
Certainly this is a vision of royalty where warts, far from being hidden, are practically worn as a badge of honor. Timothy Dalton was probably cast as the wastrel Lord Darnley as a kind of reprise of his catamite King Philip in The Lion in Winter, for example. Everyone’s dirty laundry is hung out to dry. You practically expect the sheets to be unfurled as battle standards the morning after couples copulate. If the result is to turn political struggle into canine backbiting, the snarls of vicious curs can still entertain. At least the dogs have nice collars and know how to bark, even if they’re barely house-trained.