Category: Tudor England

The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933)

The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933)

Carry on Henry as Korda’s comedic historical epic cements the popular perception of the monarch

Director: Alexander Korda

Cast: Charles Laughton (Henry VIII), Elsa Lanchester (Anne of Cleves), Binnie Barnes (Katherine Howard), Merle Oberon (Anne Boleyn), Wendy Barrie (Jane Seymour), Everley Gregg (Catherine Parr), Robert Donat (Thomas Culpeper), Franklin Dyall (Thomas Cromwell), Miles Mander (Wriothesley), Laurence Hanray (Thomas Cranmer), John Loder (Thomas Peynell)

“A Great Guy With His Chopper” was the tag-line for Carry On Henry starring Sid James as a smirking, rogueish Henry. But it might as well have been the tag-line for this Oscar-winning film, that pretty much cemented the public’s perception of Henry VIII as a lusty, fun-loving king, chucking chicken legs over his shoulder when he wasn’t busy marrying wives. Korda’s handsomely filmed Tudor epic is more knock-about farce than history but was the then most successful British film ever (the first to be nominated for Best Picture) and scooped an Oscar for Laughton as the Merrie Monarch.

The Private Life of Henry VIII skips over the meat of most Henry flicks. Catherine of Aragon is dead (the films comment on her in the opening credits describes her story as being “of no particular interest”, news to scholars of the English Reformation) and with Anne Boleyn (Merle Oberon) prepping for her head to be lopped off with a sword. From there history is left firmly behind as Bluff Hal flirts with Catherine Howard (Binnie Barnes) – who has eyes for his pal Thomas Culpeper (Robert Donat) – marries Anne of Cleves (Elsa Lanchester) who uggs up to get out of it – and ends up as a hen-pecked old guy under a blanket, bossed around by Catherine Parr (Everley Gregg).

For those interested in history, don’t expect to find out anything here. Despite walk-on parts for the headline names of the Henrician reign (Cromwell, Cranmer and others dance around the margins) and some impressive sets and Holbein-influenced costumes, this is really a cheeky-comedy, popping gags at the monarch’s famed lothario. Just as well then that the gags are all pretty good, the pace kept up and the energy of all involved adds hugely to the sense of fun.

A lot of that is, of course, led by Laughton as Henry VIII. Laughton charges around, hand on hips, legs splayed and peppers every other line with outbursts of crude laughter and childish tantrums. Laughton, in short, has a whale of time, piling into every scene with lusty relish. There is a twinkle in his eye throughout even the film’s most laboured gags (the sequence of Henry spitting and throwing food over his shoulder while bemoaning “There’s no delicacy nowadays…Manners are dead!” would easily outstay its welcome without his delighted playing of it).

What’s also striking about Laughton’s performance is the depth he gives it under the humour. Korda’s film wants us to enjoy the outlandish, larger-than-life qualities of the king, but it’s not afraid to look at the darker soul below the surface of the man many call “England’s Stalin”. Laughton’s Henry is a man who greets news of Jane Seymour’s death with a few brief seconds of sadness, before a shrug of the shoulders and a cheerful enquiry about his son. His tantrums and egotism constantly dance on the edge of tyranny. He manhandles lords and servants, screams and stamps when he doesn’t get his own way and shows not a jot of remorse or guilt at the deaths he causes (he’s even seen impatiently tapping a window waiting for the sword to fall on Anne).

Despite this though, you still sort of end up feeling sorry for him. Perhaps because Laughton manages to also make him feel strangely naïve and trusting for all his school-boy bluster. Henry is torn apart with grief at the betrayal of Catherine and Culpeper (something he really should have spotted as it is almost literally going on under his nose). Korda presents a few fairly serious scenes, after a lot of comedic banter, with Henry first assaulting those bringing him the news and then collapsing into a shuddering mess of tears. A beautifully-framed shot in his chapel, shows Henry berating himself for the faults of Catherine, Laughton’s tear-stained face communicating his “mea culpas” with a soft, regret-filled quietness.

But what’s stuck in the public perception is the comedy. The film’s finest – and central – sequence covers the short marriage with Anne of Cleves, inevitably played by Elsa Lanchester. She delivers a superb performance of physical and verbal comedic charm. Henry famously was ‘unattracted’ to Anne (I’ve always believed this syphilitic, obese, gouty man just couldn’t blame himself for his inability to get it up so claimed it was the woman’s fault). Legend of Anne’s ugliness have cruelly stuck, but the film presents it as a rather amusing pantomime of fake stumbles and gurning faces used by Anne to save herself from one-day heading to the block under this tyrant.

Laughton and Lanchester’s natural chemistry (the first of their multiple collaborations on screen) sees the real-life husband-and-wife at complete ease and the wedding-night game of cards are the most relaxed and hilarious in the whole film. “The things I do for England…” Henry mutters, but there is a suspicion these two are much better suited than history assumes.

Korda pulls this altogether into a true crowd-pleaser. There is a farcical energy to the crowds providing a wry commentary on the executions. The film is crammed with some gorgeous sets – Laughton’s first entrance is a straight-restaging of Holbein. A sequence where Henry utterly fails to sneak into Catherine Howard’s bed-chamber (due to guards announcing “the King!” around every corner) is quite wonderfully staged. The cast are very fine: Merle Oberon makes a huge amount of Anne’s shrewdness (in the film’s most historically accurate sequence), Robert Donat is very charismatic as Culpeper, Binnie Barnes suitably flirty and empty-headed as a sex-pot Catherine Howard (even if she is considerably older then the real Catherine).

The Private Life of Henry VIII pulls all its material together into a luscious farce, with the odd serious moment, that might not make any sense at all when compared to history but makes a lot of sense when you compare it to stage farce. This was the first – and best – Carry On Henry.

Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007)

Elizabeth the golden age
Cate Blanchett returns as Elizabeth I in the slightly underwhelming Elizabeth: The Golden Age

Director: Shekhar Kapur

Cast: Cate Blanchett (Elizabeth I), Geoffrey Rush (Sir Francis Walsingham), Clive Owen (Sir Walter Raleigh), Abbie Cornish (Bess Throckmorton), Samantha Morton (Mary Queen of Scots), Jordi Molla (King Philip II), Susan Lynch (Annette Fleming), Rhys Ifans (Robert Reston), Eddie Redmayne (Anthony Babington), Tom Hollander (Amias Paulet), David Threlfall (John Dee), Steven Robertson (Sir Francis Throckmorton), Adam Godley (William Walsingham), Laurence Fox (Sir Christopher Hatton), William Houston (Guerae de Espes)

Its 1585 and the reign of Elizabeth I (Cate Blanchett) has seen England enter a Golden Age. But tensions are rising with the Spanish and their king Philip II (Jordi Molla). The Spanish plot to replace the protestant Elizabeth on the throne with the catholic Mary Queen of Scots (Samantha Morton), sending their agents (including the likes of Rhys Ifans and Eddie Redmayne) to England to ferment rebellion. Can Elizabeth’s trusted advisor Sir Francis Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush) root out this potential rebellion? Or could this be a trap to lure England into a naval war with Spain and its chilling armada of ships?

Elizabeth: The Golden Age is a late sequel to the more influential Elizabeth, which mixed in the ruthlessness of The Godfather, with a sprinkling of sex in a darkly tinged Elizabeth England which seemed to drip conspiracy (setting the tone for costume dramas for the next ten years at least). Compared to its original, Elizabeth: The Golden Age seems a much more traditional piece of filmmaking. It’s luscious and handsomely filmed, with the darkness and oppression of the original replaced with golden hued lighting, sumptuous (Oscar-winning) costumes and some very impressive set-designs, all of which help to point up the glamour of the past in a way that seems much more similar to a 1970s epic than the more inventive work of the original.

It’s a part of the film’s idea of the country now enjoying the glory Elizabeth’s reign has bought, with the dark corridors replaced by the bright lights of peace and opulence. The film’s reimagining of Tudor history does still present some interesting perspectives, not least in the character of Elizabeth. Now firmly in middle-age – and committed to a life of celibate singledom – Cate Blanchett’s regally imperious Elizabeth is still emotionally vulnerable with a deep sense of longing in her. Unable to live the life of romantic freedom she could in her youth, she now lives an emotional life vicariously through her ladies in waiting, particularly Abbie Cornish’s sharp and knowing Bess Throckmorton.

This focuses on Elizabeth alternating between encouraging and discouraging (due to her own half-realised romantic longing) a romance between Bess and famed explorer Walter Raleigh. Played by Clive Owen at his most buccaneering (with an accent that playfully lies between Norfolk and New England, suggesting the American accent came from Raleigh), Raleigh bewitches the Queen with exciting tales of abroad – but with her unable to flirt with him fully as she wishes, Bess is encouraged to dance intimately with him among other romantic gestures. The most important thing throughout for Elizabeth is that it is she controls and dictates the relationship – and when the couple start to make their own decisions, it leads to disaster.

It’s all part of Michael Hirst’s (here sharing script writing duties with William Nicholson) imaginative reinvention of Tudor history (remixed into an exciting version of what could have happened). This also comes together very nicely in an interesting conspiracy thriller take on the Babington plot and the goals of the Spanish to use it to manipulate both Elizabeth and Mary Queen of Scots. The film is at its strongest when playing with historical expectations.

However, too often it plays into the sort of “Britain Triumphant” nonsense that made Michael Gove on release (and you imagine Laurence Fox today – here popping up as Christopher Hatton) thrilled. The British characters – Elizabeth, Raleigh, Walsingham – are brave, charismatic, ingenious and attractive. The villainous Spanish are thick-lipped, spittle flecked, bad-haired meanies with Philip II literally a sinister limping hunchback. No scene in Spain is complete without dark lighting, chanting monks, massive crucifixes and a general air of oppression. When ships sink, the camera doesn’t miss the chance to capture a crucifix sinking to the bottom of the briny. The Babington conspirators plot out of a dyers shop, where blood red dye drips all around them. The plot culminates in a “just missed her” point blank gun confrontation (the film’s most silly flourish). Subtle it ain’t.

And also it feels more Little Englander than its predecessor. Whereas the first film saw as much darkness and dirty dealing among the British as it did Europe, this film feels like a “Britain Stands Alone” against treacherous, lecherous, sanctimonious (or all three) Europeans. Sure the Armada was a terrific win for Britain – here with much of the credit reassigned to Raleigh who steers fire ships into the path of the Spanish ships (Drake is reimagined as a lumpen bureaucrat dazzled by Raleigh’s pizzazz) – but it owed as much (as even the Tudors themselves admitted) to the weather and luck as it did bravery and skill. Unlike the first film, Elizabeth: The Golden Age seems determined to define European and Catholic as suspiciously “other”. It makes for a less rewarding film.

And a less interesting one. For all its playing with psychology, this is a very much more traditional costume drama, celebrating Merrie Olde Englande where the original film challenged us to question our expectations. Kapur and Hirst settle for spectacle and style, over drama and truth. Blanchett is impressive as always – and the rest of the cast very sound – but this is a sequel that only lives as a counterpoint for the original.

Elizabeth (1998)

Joseph Fiennes flirts with a regal Cate Blanchett in this landmark Tudor history flick Elizabeth

Director: Shekhar Kapur
Cast: Cate Blanchett (Elizabeth I), Geoffrey Rush (Francis Walsingham), Joseph Fiennes (Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester), Richard Attenborough (Lord William Cecil), Christopher Eccleston (Duke of Norfolk), Kathy Burke (Mary I), Fanny Ardant (Mary of Guise), Vincent Cassel (Duke of Anjou), Eric Cantona (French Ambassador de Foix), Emily Mortimer (Kat Ashley), Kelly Macdonald (Isabel Knollys), John Gielgud (Pope Pius V), Daniel Craig (John Ballard), James Frain (Alvaro de la Quadra), Edward Hardwicke (Earl of Arundel), Jamie Foreman (Earl of Sussex), Terence Rigby (Bishop Gardiner)

Not many people would think of Elizabeth as being an influential film. But I would say the roots of all modern costume drama can be found in this British Tudor epic. Classic costume drama before had seen the focus on “thees and thous”, Greensleeves, lovely costumes, well-lit sets and a certain grandeur. Elizabeth re-set the table. Mixing The Godfather with Elizabeth R, Elizabeth turned costume drama into a world of dark schemes, political intrigue, violence and lashings of sex and passion. It would leave prestige Hollywood dramas of the 70s and 80s behind and turn costume drama into something far darker, grittier and sexual than ever before.

The film follows the early years of the reign of Elizabeth I (Cate Blanchett). The queen is young, naïve and passionate. She’s well educated and smart, but still impulsive and too much in thrall to her emotions. She’s far too open about her sex-filled love affair with Robert Dudley (Joseph Fiennes), new-made Earl of Leicester, and too inexperienced to heed the advice of either William Cecil (Richard Attenborough), who is pushing her towards the middle-ground of European alliances, or Francis Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush), who argues for Elizabeth to lead a strong nation, willing to take on its enemies. Conspiracies whirl around the court, as disaffected Catholics led by the Duke of Norfolk (Christopher Eccleston) plot to seize the crown and restore the “true religion”.

Elizabeth’s style is triumphant. Many of the scenes take place in dimly lit halls at court, and candlelit private chambers. The palace is seemingly made of nooks and crannies where conspirators and lovers can silently retreat and keep their intentions secret. The music – wonderfully composed by David Hirschfelder – is a mixture of urgent marches and murky sounding chords, which brings a watery effect to the soundtrack, as if every moment could twist into swamp-like traps of treachery. The film is briskly cut, frequently jump-cutting and putting together impressive montages of conspirators or events. 

The film starts with such a montage of protestants being burned: moving swiftly from a death warrant being stamped, to heads being brutally (and bloodily) shaved to an overhead shot of the cart carrying the martyrs to their deaths, culminating in their cries as the fires reach hold and finally overwhelm the soundtrack. It’s a sign straightaway that this will be very different from the traditional taste and decorum of a costume drama – and this film won’t flinch away from the grimness. Shekhar Kapur’s direction throughout is stylish, dynamic and uses editing and cinematic tricks to great effect (if at times with a little too much flash).

And the film is soaking in political intrigue – conspiracies and plots swell and unfold, with the film finally culminating in a clearly Godfather-esque purge of the Queen’s enemies. This is Tudor drama as Mafia flick, the lords of England little better than the heads of the five families, and Elizabeth the young heir they underestimate at their peril. It takes historical action and brings it definitely into a very modern feeling conspiracy thriller, using cinematic tricks and good editing to break away from the more staid period pieces of the 1970s into something much darker and atmospheric.

That also carries across into its exploration of sex, something that has got even more play in costume dramas since. It’s odd to think that the film was quite controversial at the time for showing Elizabeth and Dudley engaged in a passionate sexual affair, or for suggesting that the Queen “became a virgin” as part of piece of political showmanship. The film fronts and centres the young naivety of Elizabeth and her all-consuming fascination with Dudley – well played by Joseph Fiennes as a part romantic dreamer, part tragic weakling – and her slow realisation that there is no place for romance and passion in the world of being a queen.

Because the film is also a coming of age drama: how did Elizabeth become the Greatest Tudor Monarch? Cate Blanchett is inspired casting choice, dominating the film with a multi-faceted performance that sees Elizabeth change from an excited young girl into the distant authoritarian figure. Blanchett gets to play it all here, showing her impressive range, charting this changing personality as not always linear – so a scene of giddy romance can be followed by her sharpness when challenging the lords of England over matters of religion and then back to weakness. While you can argue the film undermines Elizabeth’s intelligence (particularly early on) what it does capture supremely well is her determination and her wilfulness. It also triumphantly turns her into a very human figure, Blanchett brilliantly showing a character forcefully – and consciously – reshaping herself to meet the demands of her office.

Around Blanchett, Kapur assembles possibly one of the most eclectic casts in history. Can you think of another film where you could see John Gielgud one scene and Eric Cantona the next? Richard Attenborough and Angus Deayton side-by-side? Fortunately, the core roles are played by assured and impressive performers. Eccleston makes for a wonderfully imperious, self-important Norfolk. Cassel goes gleefully over-the-top as the camp Anjou. Frain, Craig and others excel in early roles. The pick of the lot is a mesmeric performance by Rush as the sinister but loyal Walsingham, an eminence grise willing to work things in the background Elizabeth wants but cannot ask for, a wartime consigliere, several steps ahead of the rest and whose loyalty to Elizabeth is matched only by his ruthlessness.

Historically the film has only a passing resemblance to reality. Elizabeth’s political astuteness was sharper from the first than the film gives her credit for (although, as its aim is to stress how humanity must be sacrificed for power, there are artistic reasons for this). Bishop Gardiner, leader of the anti-Elizabeth church faction, had died during the reign of Mary I. Cecil is played as an unimaginative old man, when he was in fact in his thirties when Elizabeth came to the throne, and her most trusted and wisest advisor. Numerous events are telescoped and combined – the Ridolfi plot which (roughly) climaxes the film took place 14 years into Elizabeth’s rule, not within at most a year. The film ends with a series of historical captions, not a single one of which is actually true. Michael Hirst’s script plays fast and loose with history (and with the odd dodgy line along the way) but he’s got a flair for bringing out the drama.

But does it matter? After all, who really looks to films for their history lessons? What Elizabeth is trying to do is to turn history into cinema, and this it does to glorious effect. It also managed to change our idea of what a “history film” was. After Elizabeth, history dramas would turn increasingly into darker tales, tinged with sex and conspiracy. But this film remains one of the best, directed with real flair and style by Kapur and powered by a superb performance by Cate Blanchett. Elizabeth gets more or less everything (apart from the facts of course) stylishly right and tells English history with gripping and entertaining intensity.

Mary, Queen of Scots (2018)

Margot Robbie as a particularly dense version of Elizabeth in misfire Mary, Queen of Scots

Director: Josie Rourke

Cast: Saoirse Ronan (Mary Queen of Scots), Margot Robbie (Elizabeth I), Guy Pearce (William Cecil), David Tennant (John Knox), Jack Lowden (Lord Henry Darnley), Joe Alwyn (Lord Robert Dudley), Gemma Chan (Elizabeth Hardwick), James McArdle (Earl of Moray), Martin Compston (Earl of Bothwell), Ismael Cruz Cordova (David Rizzio), Brendan Coyle (Earl of Lennox), Ian Hart (Lord Maitland), Adrian Lester (Lord Randolph), Simon Russell Beale (Robert Beale)

Mary Queen of Scots posterThe history of the Tudors has been mined so often by film and theatre that there can hardly be any hidden stories left to tell, barely any twists that can be unveiled or reimaginings that haven’t already been imagined. Mary Queen of Scots certainly fails to find any new angles on its oh-so-familiar tale, and even its attempt to rework events and characters keeps banging its head on those damn, unchangeable real events that spoil the story it seems to want to tell.

And it’s a familiar story. Mary (Saoirse Ronan) returns to Scotland from France after the death of her husband. Naturally many people aren’t keen to see this Queen, not least her half-brother the Earl of Moray (James McArdle) who was running the country, and protestant firebrand anti-feminist John Knox (David Tennant). But Mary is plugged in, sharp and savvy and she’s going to rule the country her way – and also put forward her claim for the throne of England currently held by her cousin Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie). It seems all is set for Mary’s success – until fortune begins to turn with her marriage to drunken playboy Henry Darnley (Jack Lowden). Conspiracy, murder, exile and execution are on the cards.

Mary Queen of Scots is a mess. For starters, Beau Willmon’s script does the near impossible of turning one of the most electric periods of British history into something stodgy, dull and hard to follow. Perhaps wrapped up in his House of Cards background, a show where there is a never ending stream of betrayals, counter crosses and twists for twists’ sake, Mary Queen of Scots is the same. The film is a constant parade of betrayals in Scotland, as lords shift and move sides from scene to scene with such swiftness, such lack of explanation, such lack of exploration of character and motivation, that you end up not only confused by ceasing to care. Decent actors like James McArdle and Ian Hart struggle through with ciphers (Hart literally changes sides every single scene). Martin Compston is given a confused character design as Bothwell that makes Mary’s third husband a hero until he makes a left-field heel reversal and becomes a bullying rapist. What a mess.

It’s even worse in England, where poor Guy Pearce’s every scene is a never-ending stream of exposition and historical context. Every single scene in England at the court drags and claws itself into nothingness, simply a load of dry, dense, uninvolving dialogue with characters whom we are never given any real reason to invest in. Just as the Scottish lords are ciphers who do whatever the plot requires them to do, with no time invested in developing their characters, so it’s the case with the English lords. There are many, many, many people to keep on top of but virtually no characters to invest in.

Willmon’s script also falls wildly in love with Mary herself, desperate to turn her into some genius politician and master of realpolitik, who we are frequently told is playing the game of courtly politics with aplomb and genius. “She’s out-manoeuvred us” one character constantly bemoans. However, the problem Willman has is that he eventually has to deal with the fact that the real life Mary made hideous, disastrous, stupid decisions. And since those decisions are basically the building blocks of the story (who she marries, who she trusts, who dies, where she goes, who she abandons etc etc.), there is no way around them. You are left with a film that tells you all the time how smart your lead character is, while most of the things she does are foolish.

Not least the marriage to Lord Darnley. Jack Lowdon gives a very good performance as a feckless, arrogant weakling. But surely only the densest woman alive could fail to see that Darnley is a hideously inappropriate husband? The film gets round this by stressing his charm and, in one hilariously misjudged scene, his intense skill at cunnilingus as being the thing that pulls the wool over her eyes. (After this first soft focus bit of oral play, Mary bashfully asks Darnley if he would like some “satisfaction” as well. No that’s fine he sweetly says – she really should be suspicious by then.) The film tries to course-correct by having Mary realise literally five minutes into the marriage that she has made a terrible mistake. But she doesn’t learn from it, as the rest of her life is a series of disastrous decisions, promoting the wrong people, snubbing others, leaving her son (the SINGLE MOST IMPORTANT PERSON IN THE COUNTRY) behind when she runs away… need I go on.

As well as trying to make Mary a genius, it also balances by trying to make Elizabeth an idiot. I swear there is not a single scene in this film where Elizabeth is not in tears about something. She shows no judgement whatsoever, struggles with her hormones, blindly follows the advice of her counsellors, spends half the movie making paper roses and stroking horses rather than running the kingdom. On top of which, this film which wants to make a point about the sexism women face dealing with a world of men, turns Elizabeth (the greatest queen England ever had) into a hormonal idiot, blindly led by men and obsessed with the idea of having children (even longingly trying to make her shadow appear pregnant) because, you know, deep down the ladies just be wanting babies. 

Now Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie do decent jobs with the versions of these people they play, even if none of this rings true. Josie Rourke does a decent job directing the film visually, with its Game of Thrones inspired look and feel (Edinburgh castle is turned into some sort of bizarre Dragonstone structure, half hewn out of a mountain). But its story is, to put it bluntly, really, really BORING. You are never given any reason to care about most of these characters, so the constant stream of betrayals and side shifting eventually becomes utterly unengaging. Every time you get near to thinking Mary is smart, she has to do a terribly dumb historically inspired real event, that actually makes her look even more stupid than she was. Mary Queen of Scots is a stodgy, dense, dull mess of a film that ends up being drier and less interesting than the sort of high-Hollywood epics from the 1970s it’s trying to update.

Mary, Queen of Scots (1971)

Vanessa Redgrave and Glenda Jackson are the feuding queens in Mary, Queen of Scots

Director: Charles Jarrott

Cast: Vanessa Redgrave (Mary, Queen of Scots), Glenda Jackson (Elizabeth I), Patrick McGoohan (James Stuart, Earl of Moray), Timothy Dalton (Lord Henry Darnley), Nigel Davenport (Earl of Bothwell), Trevor Howard (Sir William Cecil), Daniel Massey (Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester), Ian Holm (David Rizzio), Andrew Keir (Ruthven), Robert James (John Knox), Katherine Kath (Catherine d’Medici), Frances White (Mary Fleming), Vernon Dobtcheff (Duke of Guise)

So here we are, back in the Tudor history craze of late 1960s Hollywood. Charles Jarrott directed, following up his efforts in Anne of the Thousand Days with this professionally mounted, handsome and rather personality-free film adaptation. It occasionally falls a bit too much in love with its luscious romanticism – and it falls hard for Mary herself, surely one of the worst queens ever – but despite all that, it has an entertaining quality that never lets you down.

The film picks up with the recently widowed Mary (Vanessa Redgrave) essentially being chucked out of France after the death of her husband the King, and swiftly being sent back to Scotland to take up the throne there. Problem is: the very Catholic Mary isn’t exactly the choice of the lords of Scotland – led by her bastard brother James Stuart (Patrick McGoohan). Mary’s Catholicism also threatens to destabilise the relationship with Protestant England – particularly because she is the nearest successor to Elizabeth I (Glenda Jackson). But Mary lacks Elizabeth’s tactical understanding of ruling and is guided by her heart – leading her into a disastrous marriage with feckless alcoholic Henry Darnley (Timothy Dalton).

Mary Queen of Scots is a stately picture, which uses its location shots, costumes and production design to tell its familiar story with a sweep and relish that effectively hides the lack of inspiration in its film-making. Just as in Anne of the Thousand Days, Charles Jarrott shows he’s a fine producer of middle-brow entertainment, safe costume dramas that aren’t going to challenge anyone’s perceptions or give you any real wow moments of filming. He’s happy to set the camera up and let the actors do their thing, with the script ticking off the great events.

That’s what you get here. It’s a film that could have been a lot more of an exploration of the rivalries and different life philosophies of its feuding queens. But it doesn’t quite connect with that. This is partly because it can’t quite bring itself to engage with the reality of Mary herself, preferring the popular romantic image. The film doesn’t want to admit that many of Mary’s decisions were, to put it bluntly, completely misguided bordering on wrong. It is in love with her romantic image – and not as enamoured with Elizabeth’s wiser, more pragmatic, manipulative rule. It’s this rule by heart rather than head the film finally holds up for praise.

It doesn’t help that Vanessa Redgrave feels miscast in the lead role. Redgrave is too sharp an actor to convince as someone as easily led and foolish as Mary. She looks too shrewd, she feels too smart. Redgrave compensates by speaking softly and giving a lot of love-struck eyes to various male actors (principally Nigel Davenport’s bluff, masculine Bothwell), but it doesn’t quite work. It’s like she’s struggling to find the character – and to find the balance in a film that doesn’t want her to be seen as too stupid, while the viewer is left slapping their foreheads at every action she carries out.

This feeling stands out all the more with Glenda Jackson’s casting as Elizabeth. Having just finished playing the same role in a landmark six-part TV series, Elizabeth R(which covered a lot of the same ground), Jackson here confirms that she was the definitive Elizabeth. As smart and shrewd an actress as Redgrave, Jackson’s natural firmness marries up very well with these qualities to make the perfect Virgin Queen. There have been so many others who have taken on the role, but Jackson is simply perfect in this role – she becomes Elizabeth. Her Elizabeth is clever, manipulative, cunning but also quick tempered, capable of great wisdom but prone to moments of passionate lashing out.

The rest of the cast is a familiar parade of character actors – British actors of this generation made a living from films like this! Timothy Dalton stands out as a foppish, clearly useless Darnley (here reimagined as a syphilitic bisexual with anger management issues), as does Ian Holm as a cool-headed, would-be power behind the throne David Riccio, who meets a tragic end. Daniel Massey does a decent job as Leicester (though I can’t shake memories of Robert Hardy in the same role in Elizabeth R – was he busy at the time?), Trevor Howard gets saddled with a lot of plot as Burghley. Up in Scotland, Patrick McGoohan has a lot of fun as a scheming Earl of Moray.

All of these actors fit comfortably into the slightly browned, grainy photography style of films of this type, and the screenwriters hammer together plenty of incident alongside dramatic invention. The focus on the soap opera of Mary’s three marriages (she’s widowed in the opening moments of the film) leaves plenty of scope for invention, from Darnley and Riccio’s affair to the inevitable non-historical meeting between Mary and Elizabeth – it seems like every drama going from Schiller onwards has invented a meeting between these two as a dramatic highpoint.

This final scene captures the lack of thematic depth to the film. In a film that had focused more on really comparing the differences between the two, this could have been the culmination of a debate running through the film (can you rule with a brain but not a heart?). Instead it misses the trick, and becomes a final game of one-up-man-ship, which the film allows Mary to win because she is the more romantic figure. 

It’s well mounted and assembled like many other films like this – but it’s not the best of its genre, and you do sometimes wish for something that had a little more meat on its bones.

Anne of the Thousand Days (1969)

Henry won’t be happy with that girl: stagy adaptation of the Anne Boleyn story Anne of the Thousand Days

Director: Charles Jarrott

Cast: Richard Burton (King Henry VIII), Geneviève Bujold (Anne Boleyn), Irene Papas (Queen Catherine of Aragon), Anthony Quayle (Cardinal Wolsey), John Colicos (Thomas Cromwell), Michael Hordern (Thomas Boleyn), Katharine Blake (Elizabeth Boleyn), Valerie Gearon (Mary Boleyn), Peter Jeffrey (Duke of Norfolk), Joseph O’Conor (Bishop Fisher), William Squire (Sir Thomas More)

Anne of the Thousand Days fits neatly into Hollywood’s obsession of the 1960s: the grand British historical epic, crammed with costumes, old locations and leading Brit actors in beards mouthing “olde English” style dialogue. Some of these films are of course marvellous – A Man For All Seasons being clearly the best – some are merely competent. AotTD falls very much in the latter category. It’s a solid but dry and rather self-important piece of entertainment, more interested in wowing you with its pageantry than moving you with its emotion.

As the film opens, Henry VIII (Richard Burton) considers whether or not to sign Anne Boleyn’s (Genevieve Bujold) death warrant. The film then flashes back to tell us the story of Anne’s rise and fall. Along the way, the usual figures from Tudor history are wheeled out: Wolsey, Catherine, More, Cromwell and assorted Boleyns.  And of course, the whole thing ends with Anne proudly proclaiming her daughter will one day be the greatest queen of England, with quite exceptional clairvoyance given how unlikely that would’ve actually looked at the time.

The main problem is it isn’t sure what it wants to say about its central character. It wants to simultaneously position her as a strong, “modern” woman with her own ambitions but as a woman succumbing to passion. Essentially, it wants to have its cake and eat it: for Anne to understand Henry is far from love’s ideal vision, while not wanting to lose their “Great Romance”. So we have scenes where Anne questions why anyone would want to marry Henry or talks of her desire for peace, and later scenes where she demands the judicial murder of all who refuse to accept the marriage.

And it may want to show Anne as a modern woman, but – frustratingly – it’s only actually interested in her as a romance object. Her modernity is solely expressed in defying her family to try and marry someone other than Henry, and having spirited “I hate you/I love you” sparring matches so beloved of Hollywood. But the film has no interest in her intelligence, her involvement in the Reformation, or how this led into dangerous conflict with the increasingly powerful Thomas Cromwell (here her downfall is solely down to her inability to produce a son, and being jealous of love rival Jane Seymour, here playing the sort of minxy temptress Anne is often accused of being).

And even this simplified, Mills-and-Boon Anne is inconsistent– one minute she’s a sweet young girl bravely resisting her unwanted royal suitor. Then, she’s delighted with the power that comes with allowing the King to court her. Equally suddenly, she falls in love with him (though that scene is so confusingly written it’s initially unclear whether this is genuine or simply a ploy to win back the attention of Henry). Even away from the central “romantic” relationship, her character oscillates – she schemes revenge against Wolsey, but then is too nice to take Hampton Court from him.

Despite this, Genevieve Bujold delivers an excellent performance. The film successfully plays up her youth early on, and she brings the role a lot of passion, fire and intelligence. Her French-Canadian accent also makes perfect sense considering Anne was largely brought up at the French court. Bujold does her best to hold together an inconsistent character and delivers a real sense of Anne’s independence and intellectual strength. Not even she can completely sell the competing visions of Anne the film has, but she does a very good job with what she is given.

Richard Burton was allegedly fairly scornful of his performance, but he is terrific. One area where the film does succeed is repositioning Henry as a proto-tyrant, who literally cannot conceive he is wrong. In a memorable scene, Henry explains that, ruling as he does through God, any thoughts in his head must have been placed there by God, ergo he can never be wrong. If that isn’t a tyrant, I’m not sure what is. Burton’s charisma is perfect for a man who can flip on a sixpence from bonhomie to fury. While Anne’s intellectualism is overlooked, the film does a great job of demonstrating Henry’s intellectual fakery, via his bland and overbearing musical compositions (met with a rapturous response from the court). Lords literally breathe sighs of relief after they leave his presence. Burton may not be an ideal physical match, but embodies Henry’s ruthless selfishness and towering ego.

It’s a shame that, despite having strong performances, the film is not only so confused, but also so flat and dry. Charles Jarrott frames the film with a dull conventionality, carefully letting costumes and production design fill the screen like a dutiful workman. Has he got any really interesting ideas for shooting this stuff, or presenting a routine plot with any freshness? Not really. Instead we get spectacle, and inevitable rundown of events, but no real sense of novelty. It turns the whole thing into a rather slow, reverent slice of British history, dry and stodgy, ticking off events as it goes.

Those events come and go with a confused focus. The foundation of the Church of England is under explained. The fates of several characters are left unresolved – in particular Cardinal Wolsey (an otherwise excellent Anthony Quayle) simply disappears. The final condemnation of Anne is rushed and confused (you would be forgiven for not really understanding who she has been accused of sleeping with, and the alleged incest between her and brother is almost thrown away). Other characters are simplified (despite good performances from their actors):  so William Squire’s More is upstanding and honest, while John Colicos’ Cromwell is dastardly and scheming.

Anne of the Thousand Days is rather old fashioned and probably best watched now as a Sunday afternoon film. It tells a very, very familiar story (how many times have we seen Henry/Anne’s romance on screen before and since) without too much originality, and largely fudges putting together a clear sympathetic portrait of its central character. Having said that, it is well acted and looks wonderful. It’s just also rather dry and far too aware of having an “important” story to tell.

A Man For All Seasons (1966)

Paul Scofield ways up a difficult demand from a not-so merry monarch

Director: Fred Zinnemann

Cast: Paul Scofield (Sir Thomas More), Wendy Hiller (Alice More), Robert Shaw (Henry VIII), Orson Welles (Cardinal Wolsey), Leo McKern (Thomas Cromwell), Susannah York (Margaret More), Nigel Davenport (Duke of Norfolk), John Hurt (Richard Rich), Corin Redgrave (William Roper), Colin Blakely (Matthew)

Writing these film reviews is sometimes harder when it’s a film you know so well. I was probably in my very early teens when I first saw this and I’ve seen it dozens of times since. I know all the scenes, all the beats, and I love it. This is a brilliant film, and its depth, richness and intelligence are ingrained. It’s a wonderfully written, played and directed piece that transforms a historical event from a history lesson into an endlessly relevant and affecting parable.

Paul Scofield (simply becoming the man) is Sir Thomas More. With Queen Catherine unable to bear Henry VIII (Robert Shaw) a son, wheels are in motion to ditch the Queen and marry the king to Anne Boleyn (a split second cameo from an unpaid Vanessa Redgrave, making you believe in a moment Anne could split a kingdom). More, however, can’t agree to the divorce – his faith in the Catholic church is non-negotiable, and the church won’t recognise the marriage. So while the rest of the kingdom falls in line, More is arrested and takes refuge in his complete silence – having never spoken of his reasons, he can never be tried for them.

Re-watching this masterful film for the first time in a few years on a newly released, fully restored Blu-ray, I was immediately reminded what a thoughtful, interesting and enjoyable film it is. Having read the play again, I genuinely think (and I’m not alone) Bolt’s script is superior to the original. Several changes have been made, most notably the removal of the “Common Man”, a theatrical device whereby one actor played all the smaller working class roles, while delivering a commentary on the action. It’s a very theatrical device, which Bolt believed wouldn’t work on screen, but its removal also purifies the story, tightens the focus and allows us to focus on More. The commentary on More’s conflicted character is instead provided by Paul Scofield’s superlative performance in close-up. Bolt also removed much of the political background, making the film more of a parable of conscience rather than a “history play”.

The film is a beautiful celebration of old-fashioned Hollywood film making. Fred Zinnemann is sometimes forgotten today, extremely unfairly for a man with a hugely impressive back catalogue. A Man for All Seasons was perfect for a director whose best work saw one man stand alone against a system – be that at Pearl Harbour or the Wild West. Zinnemann was an “actor’s director”, and draws out a series of impressive performances. But his often simple set-ups never feel staged.

He and John Box (production designer) understand the power of claustrophobia, of life and death conversations in small rooms – from Wolsey’s imposing red office that seems an extension of his personality, to Cromwell’s poky office and More’s cell, the sense of being trapped builds throughout the film. By contrast, the final courtroom’s spaciousness only underlines the fact that it’s a fix. Throughout the film looks wonderful and its spare score is a beautiful Tudor-style series of compositions that carry a perfect pitched of awe and doom. It’s so beautiful (and often overlooked) I’ve put a link to the opening here.

 In fact, Zinnermann constructs the film throughout with wonderful beats and telling shots. The first appearance of Henry VIII, his head obstructing the sun, More blinking looking up, is one of the best visual impressions you’ll see of the Icarus nature of the Tudor court. A beautiful cut takes us from More (in a windswept garden, a lovely commentary on the turbulence of his life) wondering if he can find a way to sign the oath, to a shot of the view from behind his prison bars – pages and pages of story told to us in one simple cut. Later, from the same position, we’ll see a whole year pass by in a few moments – simple, unfussy, very effective. The film is packed with small, subtle moments like this that never intrude by themselves, but build to create the effect of the film wonderfully.

And this is a great film, there’s no doubt about that. The story is surprisingly simple, but Bolt and Zinnermann make it feel truly universal: the man against the state, the individual standing for what he believes is right despite all the pressure bought to bear against him. It’s a timeless parable and could be applied to virtually any time or place you could name. It’s also extremely well written: nearly every other line is memorable, the speeches are extraordinary. Every moment of reflection and observation sounds (and is) universal in its application. Its straightforwardness also helps make the story very moving, and it successfully carries out the trick of telling a movie about a saint while making him a living, breathing man we can relate to.

Of course, a large part of its success is due to Paul Scofield’s performance in the lead role. Honed after years of performing the role, it’s again almost hard to talk about individually as Scofield is so central to the film; talking about its success is in many ways to talk about Scofield’s success. Scofield’s performance is one where the actor disappears and the character remains: his More is totally real. You feel throughout not only his dignity and wisdom and his sharply defined sense of private and public morality – but also his warmness, his wit, his benevolent regard for people and those around him. He’s a caring master and friend – but not a push-over; and is adamantine in his decisions. Scofield is also able to show the contradictions of the man: a private man who cannot give up the lure of the limelight. Every beat of the performance is brilliantly observed, a list of highlights would fill a book. He carries the entire film from start to finish and never lets it slip for a second.

He’s helped by some wonderful support (and it’s a testimony to his generosity as an actor that he cedes the screen several times). Robert Shaw’s Henry VIII is a scene stealing tour-de-force. It’s up there with Robert Duvall’s Kilgore as cameos that wrench control of the movie. He’s on-screen for about 12 minutes, but he perfectly captures Henry’s charisma and his childish temper and fury. He’s intelligent (but not that intelligent – I love his sulky response when he is quickly bested by Margaret More in knowledge of Latin) and friendly but not that friendly – the sort of man who literally rips flowers from a tree to show someone how beautiful they are: destruction and excitement combined in one moment. You totally believe that this is a man who could shatter a country in a fit of pique.

Wendy Hillier also deserves notice for what might be the trickiest role in the film as Lady Alice, a woman who lives happily in the shadow of her husband. Ill-educated and lacking any understanding of her husband, it’s a part that could be almost yokel like. But Hillier brings it a world of dignity and fiery defiance, and she brings a completely convincing fury to Alice as she rails against  injustice. The final scene between her and More is a masterclass from both of simple, uncomplicated love that has held two people with very little in common together for a lifetime.

There is literally not a bad performance in this film. Every actor is perfectly cast and completely understands their roles. Nigel Davenport masterfully portrays the pride and dimness that lies under Norfolk’s bluff domineering persona. John Hurt nails Rich’s weakness, selfishness and greed and layers it with a convincing note of underlying self-loathing: a star marking performance. Orson Welles seems to have prepared his whole life for the bloated, corrupt Wolsey. Leo McKern (the only other cast member from the original production) invests Cromwell with a low viciousness and a deadly political savvy that is based exclusively on realpolitik and devoid of decency. Susannah York, Corin Redgrave and Colin Blakely all also excel.

Historically, the character of More has faced far more criticism and scepticism recently. Several historians have bought attention to More’s rigid Inquisition-like Catholicism and his willingness to execute heretics; Hilary Mantel’s equally brilliant Wolf Hall was partly written as a response to Bolt’s presentations of More and Cromwell, lauding the latter at the expense of the former.

But these controversies are not what this film is about – and it’s never trying to be a history lesson. It presents its version of the story on its own terms (very little is ever leaned about the “King’s Great Matter” or the reasons for it) – instead, like The Crucible, it turns a historical event into a deeply moving and profound parable. In doing this it transcends being a simple recounting of events, and instead becomes an independent work of art. Historical accuracy is of no relevance to the audience when viewing Henry IV Part 1: it is of no matter here either, and is something the film never claims. And it’s all the better for it. Still one of my all-time favourites.