Vanessa Redgrave in Mary, Queen of Scots (1971)


Vanessa Redgrave is an actress I am familiar with mainly because of her reputation. She is often in many people’s list of top actresses, and I have always wanted to watch more of her work. From what I’ve read by other bloggers, I got the impression that she belongs to the category of actresses you either “get” or don’t. Personally, I would agree strongly with the one thing about her that many people are crazy about – she has a one of a kind presence that seems to be able to elevate the quality of the films she is in. And like what many others say, you really can’t take your eyes off her when she is on screen, it is almost as if she is glowing. Seriously, I can’t even argue much against her nomination for Howard’s End, even though she technically didn’t do much in that role (Quite a few people even think that she should have won). Who else can leave such a deep impression just by walking through a garden in the opening credits of a film? I guess this is the main reason why her performance in Julia worked so damn well, where she played a mysterious character that the viewer isn’t even sure is real or not.

I found Mary, Queen of Scots to be a really weak and dull film. Don’t expect The Lion in Winter – this movie is nothing more than an overblown and superficial soap opera. Even though it cramps quite a bit into its 2 hours runtime, I found myself taking away nothing from it because of the way everything is so artificially presented. By the time the first 30 minutes were over, I could not care less about who was plotting against who and who was going to kill who. The “suspenseful” moments are really dull, and even the killing of David Riccio was unintentionally funny. Some of the lines are so corny and unrealistic that it is impossible to take the film seriously, especially when you see the characters behave exaggeratedly or “break away” to talk to themselves. The music was also pretty campy and grating.

This is the first leading role of Vanessa Redgrave’s that I have watched and I think I’ll just be direct here: it’s quite disappointing. The above-mentioned “radiant presence” is noticeably absent here, and the overall effect is quite weak. She doesn’t rise above the weakness of the script and while it might seem blasphemous to say this about Redgrave, I found some of her line deliveries and mannerisms quite fake. I mean, what’s with all those over-the-top gasping and shocked expressions? I could see that Redgrave was trying her best to inject life into the artificial screenplay, but her struggles are also quite apparent.

Mary is portrayed as an idiot in this film, which is already to Redgrave’s disadvantage since Glenda Jackson’s Elizabeth would come across as the more fascinating and powerful character. Jackson also gave the better performance, mainly because she played the character before. However, I should add that I am not really that crazy about her work too though – some of her scenes are rather ridiculous because of the screenplay.

But even if Mary is “weaker”, I do not believe that this should have limited Redgrave’s performance in any way. What I found the most disappointing was how Redgrave was just playing everything on the surface – she runs through her lines, she acts shocked, she acts angry, she acts wildly in love, but at the end of the day there is no depth at all. I rarely feel anything about this character – I don’t feel angry at her stupidity, I don’t feel saddened by her helplessness. When Jackson’s Elizabeth remarks at the end about how Mary’s life “is steeped in blood and violence”, I was like “Oh REALLY?” because I definitely did not get that impression from Redgrave. Neither does her performance “inspire pity” like what Elizabeth says, since the whole thing is just kinda empty. Furthermore, we know from the descriptions of the other characters that Mary did her fair share of plotting but Redgrave never really brought out that cunning, manipulative side of the character too. She pretty much portrays her as a stupid and victimized saint.

That being said, while re-watching some clips from the film, I was actually sorta impressed by certain parts of Redgrave’s performance (I am seriously wondering whether she is better as a supporting actress, where she can shine in a few brief scenes). She does capture the stubbornness, arrogance and naivety of Mary well, although there’s nothing mind-blowing here either. I will say this though – it is really mostly the screenplay’s fault. It is just so weak that I didn’t think Glenda Jackson was really amazing either, even though she gave a much better performance. However, despite all this, there is at least something interesting about Redgrave that makes me want to watch more of her. 2.5/5.




  1. Interesting – she doesn’t seem to be that great here from what little I’ve seen. Have you seen The Devils?

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