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Mary Of Scotland
cast: Katharine Hepburn, Fredric March, Florence Eldridge, and Douglas Walton

director: John Ford

123 minutes (PG) 1936
Universal DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 6/10
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
Available as part of the Directed By John Ford collection, Mary Of Scotland tells the story of Mary Queen of Scots from her arrival in Scotland to the moment of her execution for treason. What is surprising about the film is that despite being made in 1930s' Hollywood, it actually tries very hard to be historically accurate. In fact, it makes a better hash of it than more recent retellings of the story such as Jimmy McGovern's Gunpowder, Treason & Plot (2004), or Shekhar Kapur's Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007). However, despite its historical accuracy, Mary Of Scotland is a shallow and disappointing film.

Niece to Henry VIII and widow of the former king of France, Mary returns home to Scotland in order to claim her throne. Instead of loyal subjects, though, she finds a kingdom divided by religion and political ambition and almost immediately she gets bullied by her own government. The only way for a monarch to be secure on the throne then was for them to provide an heir, thereby assuring the lords of a stable succession of power upon the royal's death.

In order to achieve that peace, Mary decides to marry fellow Catholic Lord Darnley despite the possibility that this would antagonise Queen Elizabeth and enrage the protestant lords. Surely enough, the marriage does both and soon Lord Darnley turns into a drunk, endlessly demanding the rights and powers he is entitled to as King. This serves only to push the Queen into the arms of the only man who has stood beside her, the Earl of Bothwell, further shaming her husband in the process.

Soon, Darnley dies in an 'accident' and this presses the Scottish lords into outright rebellion, a rebellion that would end only with Bothwell's exile and Mary's abdication and imprisonment in England. However, Mary's problems did not end there as she soon becomes involved in a plot and is tried and executed for her actions but not before she has met with Queen Elizabeth and taunted her with the idea that while Mary's reign may have been a catalogue of disastrous mistakes, at least she ruled with her heart and spent time with the man she loved and gave birth to a child who would one day succeed Elizabeth to the throne of England and Scotland combined.

The above plot summary makes Mary Of Scotland sound like a dry history lesson and, unfortunately, there's an element of truth to that observation. Though beautifully performed and nicely put together, the film never really has any interest in explaining why anything happens. For example, we see that firebrand protestant preacher John Knox hates Mary but we never learn why beyond the obvious, nor do we ever really learn why the lords of Scotland were so treacherous. This makes for poor history as it means that far from being educational, the film feels like a dull series of events dutifully set on film but with no over-arching feel for the times or the pressures on any of the characters. This shallowness equally extends to the characters' emotional lives as none of the main relationships are given any room in which to breathe or grow, instead there's a lot of "I knew I loved you the second I met you," which is certainly dramatic but it doesn't really make for well-rounded characters.

On a side note, the film also makes a similar mistake to that made in Kapur's Elizabeth (1998) in that they both mistake the period concept of religious tolerance with modern-day liberal multiculturalism. In both films, the queens take the reins in countries hostile to their particular religion and in both cases they plead the case for their 'conscience'. However, the truth is that neither queen was a modern woman... they were both women of faith and only ever pleaded religious tolerance in order to protect themselves from assassination by some religious zealot or in order to quieten down dissent until they were in stronger positions. Indeed, Queen Elizabeth was very much her father's daughter in so far as she was no friend to Catholicism.

In truth, it is honestly difficult to get excited about Mary Of Scotland. It is a competent if shallow recounting of historical fact notable only for the bizarre inclusion of traditional Hollywood musical numbers. If you want to watch a film about Mary Queen of Scots, go and rent the Jimmy McGovern version instead, as it covers much the same ground with considerably more style.
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