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This is definitely a mini-series of two halves. The first is a fairly balanced look at Mary Queen of Scots' troubled reign and the reasons for its failure that's often genuinely impressive, powerfully directed and certainly compelling. While it shows her rather more in command of events than history recalls - here she makes many of her own catastrophic mistakes rather than having them made for her by the shady characters who surrounded her - it does deal convincingly with the problems of a Catholic queen ruling a Protestant country where half her advisors are blinded by their hatred of the English while the other half are in their pay and few have her or Scotland's interests at heart. Unlike previous versions of the tale it acknowledges that a big part of her problem in winning over her subjects was the fact that, having spent most of her life abroad, Mary was more French than Scot and is appropriately played, and rather well, by a French actress, Cleménce Poésy. She's given strong support by an excellent Kevin McKidd's convincingly loyal and infatuated but brash and disastrously tactless Bothwell, Paul Nichols as her politically expedient but tragically feckless husband Darnley, who loses all interest and charm no sooner has she signed the marriage contract, and Gary Lewis as John Knox, the Ian Paisley of his day.
Definitely underfunded in the crowd scenes, which often run to literally a couple of dozen extras, despite the odd misstep - chief among them Mary telling Bosworth to "Go away to a dark and lonely place and toss your caber, Scottish man" - it's a fine piece of historical drama that never feels like it's completely sacrificing the history to beef up the drama. Unfortunately everything gained in the first half is completely lost in the dimly related second half, which focuses on the early years of her son James' reign in Scotland and England and the events leading up to the Gunpowder Plot.
The Gunpowder Plot is notoriously difficult to dramatise, with much of the historical record distorted into nonsense and myth and both sides rewriting history to suit their purpose as deliverers or martyrs, yet there's still a great political thriller to be made about it. Unfortunately McGovern abandons all pretence of balance for a piece that plays like a confused rant from an ill-informed and very loud fundamentalist being screamed in your ears, with Robert Carlye's James being turned into an increasingly unbelievable cartoon villain. His tendency to revel in his own absolute evil and moral bankruptcy as he colludes in the execution of his mother, gets turned on by gruesome executions and kills his Scottish allies to gain an impoverished English throne makes Shakespeare's Richard III look like Mother Teresa at her most selfless. Aside from the rampant homophobia of the piece (in one distasteful moment McGovern implies that the price of James' initial tolerance for Catholics was oral sex from Thomas Percy), it's very dubious history that takes the similarly clumsily characterised plotters at face value with equally broad strokes. In truth it appears that, rather than admit that he had less influence with the King than he claimed, Percy gave English Catholics false hope by exaggerating the support James offered for their loyalty when his ascension to the throne was in doubt to make himself look good, and certainly rather than the plot being uncovered by Emilia Fox's Mata Hari-like hate-fuelled fanatical Protestant spy (who unleashes a rather nasty bout of misogyny in the script when she is raped and strangled by a plotter screaming "Impotence is power!") it was undone primarily by their own remarkable clumsiness: when buying gunpowder to kill the King and the entire government, it's never a good idea to do so under your own name. To be fair the script does occasionally acknowledge these own goals, but rarely delves into how incredibly ill-thought out and spectacularly counter-productive the plot was, managing to turn the English public even more against a Catholic faith that had been every bit as ruthless in stifling dissent and persecuting others.
At one point the script even conjures up the notion that James widened the plot to rid himself of a troublesome and unsupportive parliament, the King wickedly rewriting history to make the plotters out as cowards so he could start a campaign to conquer Europe (no, seriously) while McGovern's script is guilty of the same thing itself to see 'justice' served - at one point he even has Catesby kill Francis Tresham with his bare hands for alerting Lord Monteagle to the plot, despite Tresham outliving him and dying in mysterious circumstances (some historians suspect Tresham was a government agent provocateur and that it was Monteagle who had him poisoned, a much more interesting dramatic angle to pursue). Even the famous moment of historical irony that saw the fugitive plotters blown up by their own damp gunpowder as they attempted to dry it by a fire has been omitted in favor of something much more Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid.
None of this would matter so much if it was well written or dramatically convincing, but it's so heavy-handed you half suspect McGovern chiselled the script on stone tablets, all the better to bash the hated Protestant English with. Stylistically the piece is very different to the story of Mary Stuart, abandoning the naturalism of the first half to have characters talk directly to the camera, a device that rarely works and seems more like a quick fix for the poor characterisation than a genuine insight into the characters' mindsets and prejudices. Worse still, the two halves really have no real relation except involving mother and son: the events of the second half are never informed by the first, making you wonder why the two weren't produced as separate standalone dramas. The result is a literally half-decent series, but one you're best advised to stop watching at the halfway point.
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