I am a man who loves a good costume drama. I said it, with no shame. Mary Queen of Scots, criminally unavailable on DVD, might not exactly be Merchant Ivory-material as far as the production values go but is a treat for fans of historical period films nonetheless.
Vanessa Redgrave received an Oscar nomination back at the start of the '70s for her portrayal of Queen Mary Stuart and it holds up as one of the actresses most unique achievements: it is a surprisingly inventive performance, deserving of its accolades. The story is really not innovative or well done for that matter, but the film is saved by the truly visionary work of Redgrave at the height of her powers.
In the late '60s she won two Best Actress awards at Cannes (and was Oscar-nominated as well) for Morgan! (1966) and Isadora (1968) and appeared in Michelangelo Antionini's classic Blow Up. During this time she also became an outspoken political activist, an incendiary proposition for a performer to take back then. Bad press aside, the actress managed to carve a niche for herself in world cinema despite making a slew of enemies.
What essentially saved Ms. Redgrave's ass was the fact that she was descended from acting royalty (father was Michael, sister is Lynn), as well as her genuine gift for putting a fresh, modern spin on classic characters such as Mary Stuart. Her character's arc is quite dynamic: Mary starts out in France (Redgrave learned French phonetically for the part), a happy young queen in love who witnesses the death of her beloved husband. She is exiled to live in Scotland (photographed with an other-worldly opulence), where she is used as a pawn of the Catholic Church until finally she comes into her own realizations after many bloody, manipulated years on the throne.
It is curious that the actress would condescend to appear in such a seemingly straightforward historical romance, but she succeeds in seeing past the trite romantic clichés that riddle the script. The tawdry dime store love interludes of the film are its weakest points, but Redgrave manages to wring out some exactness in the mushiness. She is at her height in the more forceful scenes, showing no mercy to the husband and brother who have betrayed her, and accepting her fate as a religious martyr. The parallels between Redgrave and her character could be seen as laughable (Redgrave is obviously not a martyr) but she uses the hysteria directed at her real life to great effect. She was one actress who understood completely what it is like to be persecuted and vilified, like Mary.
Complicating matters is Mary's cousin, Queen Elizabeth I (played brilliantly by two time Academy Award winner Glenda Jackson, who knows a thing or two about rowdy politics herself and who also played the Queen in a PBS mini-series that same year). Elizabeth is torn between letting Mary, who is a queen by birthright, rule without interference, be kept in exile, or be killed. It is this cat and mouse game between the two women that keeps the story floating briskly by. Although there is no actual historical meeting documented between the rivals, the film imagines two secret interactions between them, which provides some great dramatic sparks just as the film begins to lag. Jackson and Redgrave look as though they are having the time of their lives trying to out-bitch one another.