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This is a BBC historical drama penned by Jimmy McGovern shown in 3
1561 with the turbulent reign of Mary Queen of Scots and climaxing with
conceived by Robert Catesby, Guy Fawkes et al to assassinate her son King
James by blowing
up Parliament on November 5 1605. It is a lively piece, full of political
and religious intrigue
and very bloody in parts - believe me, the sword is not spared. The
particularly in the final episode was at times a little disconcerting;
of the characters
would suddenly turn and speak directly to the camera, but this was my only
Some great performances, in particular that of Robert Carlyle as a moody, intense and utterly ruthless King James. An unrecognisable Catherine McCormack (remember Murron, William Wallace's young wife in Braveheart?) plays a scheming, all-powerful Queen Bess ("DESTROY HIM!"), whose scenes are sadly brief but memorable. Clemence Poesy, a gorgeous young French actress, gives the character of Mary a naivete and sensuality previously unseen in period pieces covering this time-frame. British audiences will recognise a now fully-grown Paul Nicholls (young Joe Wicks from Eastenders) who clearly relished his scenes playing the doomed Lord Darnley. (A possible future Bond, perhaps). Steven Duffy does well as a treacherous and highly ambitious Lord James, half-brother of Queen Mary, while Kevin McKidd lends dignity and heroism to the character of Bothwell, lover of the young Queen. Tim McInnerny is previously well-known for his comedic performances in the historical comedy Blackadder, so it was a nice change to see him as the cold, calculating Cecil, most powerful man in England.
The accuracy of certain events will no doubt be disputed by historians (the execution of Queen Mary, for example: never before have I seen it portrayed as a plot by James VI to murder his mother in order to get his own hands on the English Crown). But it is a highly enjoyable period drama whose main theme, the eternal struggle between Protestant and Catholics, is used to great effect to portray the events leading up to one of the most infamous plots in British history, commemorated every single 5th November all over these islands ever since.
After viewing the first two episodes (shown together on
the UK terrestrial channel BBC 2), I wanted to recommend
The title brings to mind "Guy Fawlkes", but the mini-series is actually the story of Mary, Queen of Scots - a tale which is amongst the most dramatic in the whole of Scottish history.
Given that all Scottish school children study this period in great detail (myself included!), the responsibility of all concerned is high.
It was with great delight that I found the series an honest and compelling human drama, and the (historically known) actions of the characters made perfect sense in the light of the characterisations and script.
I was concerned that the whole affair would be dragged down by either the weight of historical authenticity or the need to create a drama for modern sensibilities.
The historical ambiguities in the character of Mary were perfectly realised as drama: the transition from a French childhood to become a champion of the Scottish cause was credible. Her involvement in political assassinations was cleverly presented as "for the good of Scotland" rather than as cold-hearted scheming. So in this drama Mary is a heroine, though historians will argue endlessly on this one. My recall of school history is not good enough to know where liberties have been taken with historical fact.
Some flaws were present - the character of David Rizzio was not fleshed out sufficiently. The feel of the production could be criticised a little as a McGovern "housing estate drama" in costume e.g. the simple-minded Protestant/Catholic vein pervading the production. However, as the drama really gets going through the romance between Mary and her "bit of Scottish rough" (Lord Bothwell), perhaps one should acknowledge the universality of the human condition.
This is not an "Elizabeth" which re-wrote the book for cinematic historical realisations. However, "Gunpowder, Treason and Plot" is a likable and worthy production, which may not be absolutely top notch, but does seem a little tucked away on BBC 2 on a Sunday evening, when it deserves wider viewing.
I await the remaining episodes with interest.
As soon as I saw the text "Written by Jimmy McGovern" flash up on the
promos, I knew that this would be something special. Having watched the
first season of McGovern's "Cracker" I knew that this would be history
with true grit, venomous dialogue, and buckets of conflict. I wasn't
Judging by the other comments some people found McGovern's style too harsh, that he belittles the both Royal family and the Protestant and Catholic branches of church, and overuses sex and violence. It's a fair criticism, but so many over-starched interpretations of British history have been made that this gritty drama becomes a breath of fresh air.
The show is evenly divided into two parts, both riveting stories. The first is the reign of Queen Mary I of Scotland, a French Catholic girl now ruling over Protestant Scotland. Clemence Poesy turns in a brilliant performance as the young queen faced with her conniving half-brother Lord James, Queen Elizabeth I of England, her misogynistic husband Lord Darnley, and her brash suitor the Lord Bothwell. The whole story is turbulent, as a state of war with the English gradually precipitates.
The second part is much higher drama, though. It is concerned with Mary's son James I, a repugnant, bitter cripple, who promises the Catholics tolerance, and then reneges on his promise at the behest of the manipulative Lord Cecil, one of the most powerful men in England. This proves the catalyst for the famous attempted bombing of the houses of parliament on November 5, lead by the ruthless Spaniard Guy Fawkes.
It is true that McGovern revolves the entire show about the us-and-them viewpoint of the Catholic and Protestant, BUT this works to great effect. Emphasising the conflict in this war really ups the ante for the drama, making for some very high-octane television. Add to this brilliant performances by Robert Carlyle, Tim McInnerny, Kevin McKidd, Sam Troughton, and Michael Fassbender (Playing Guy Fawkes as a silent Clint Eastwood type delightfully)
This is, without a doubt, the greatest telemovie I've ever seen. However, if you're at all squeamish this definitely isn't for you: this is history with the filthy bits left in for a change...
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.
From the script and from Robert Carlyle's performance, you'd have no inkling that James I was anything other than a degenerate, evil homosexual. Therefore you lose interest in watching the show because his character has no redeeming qualities. Contrast this portrayal with a quote from an historical website: "Along with Alfred the Great, James is considered to have been one of the most intellectual and learned individuals ever to sit on the English or Scottish Throne. Under him, much of the cultural flourishing of Elizabethan England continued; individuals such as Sir Francis Bacon (afterwards Viscount St Albans) and William Shakespeare flourished during the reign. James himself was a talented scholar, writing works such as Daemonologie (1597), The True Law of Free Monarchies (1598), Basilikon Doron (1599) and A Counterblast to Tobacco (1604)." (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_I_of_England) There was absolutely no evidence of anything but venality and repulsiveness in the depiction of James I in this TV show.
One of the best historical dramatisations I've ever seen: McKidd's passion is palpable, as are the blood and gore of the Catholic purges when James I came to power, the dust and dirt on costumes, the primitivism of the lifestyles--all seem as realistic as could possibly be. Of course, we have nothing but the literature of the time to document what life was really like, but this seems to me a fine imagining of the vulgarities, barbarisms, discomforts, passions and violence of the time. I can't think of a better film to introduce young people to the history of this turbulent period--it will certainly grab their attention!
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I found this a very compelling and fascinating movie. As a non-Britain
I lack sufficient historical knowledge to judge the accuracy of the
script, but to me it all was quite convincing. I was only disappointed
that the story was so harshly split up in two chronological halves,
separated by some decades in time, I would like to have known how James
grew up and became the person that he was at the beginning of part two.
There are other differences between both parts of the series. In the
first part the story evolves gradually, new people are introduced and
you can watch the drama grow. The second part is more abrupt, like we
have to board on an already moving train, there's an abundance of new
characters (for instance the whole subversive group around Guy Fawkes)
who are hardly introduced to us, so (for me at least) it was much
harder to follow the historic goings on. The incidental, and rather
unexpected direct facing of the viewer by some of the protagonists was
confusing and seemed unnecessary, and strangely enough it it only
occurred two or three times at the beginning of the second part, as if
the writer and director themselves soon lost interest in this curious
and a bit pretentious directorial ingenuity.
For the rest I very much enjoyed this movie, the settings are beautiful, there's no reluctance in showing some heavy violence (which enhanced the authenticity of the story) and the acting is overall of the highest level. I especially want to mention Clémence Poésy as Mary Queen of Scots, she is not only beautiful but gives a stunning performance as the young, at start insecure, but rapidly maturing queen. Her dealing with the the harsh and mistrusting protestant Scots, her sad marriage with an abusive power-hungry lord Darley (Paul Nicholls in a great performance!), her passionate liaison with Bothwell, it's all portrayed in a very moving and believable way. Steven Duffy as her scheming half-brother Lord James was equally great, and Kevin McKidd as Bothwell reminded me of Daniel Craig in Casino Royal, a mixture of rugged charm, wild passion and relentless violence in protecting his love: the strong and reliable suitor that every girl (and some boys!) dreams about!! The absolute star of the second half is Robert Carlyle as King James. That's partly due to the intelligent script, that gives this king an intriguing ambivalent character: hunger for power, at the same time awareness of his own sad posture and his shortcomings as a ruler, scolding his poor wife (who soon makes the best of it, developing into a Lady MacBeth-like power of her own) and mimic every bit of advice he get's (especially from the ominous Lord Cecil) out of lack of confidence. But Robert Carlyle turns this character into a real life person of flesh and blood in a totally convincing and almost blood-chilling way, like a Shakespearean Richard III, evoking admiration mingled with repulsion, while you can see the madness growing on him. He impressed me very, very much.
About the homosexual tendency in this version of King James there're already said some things here, I don't know anything about the historical backgrounds of it, but for me there was no need whatsoever to bring that in. Indeed, the forcing by the king of a lord into an (insinuated) royal blow-job looked anachronistically modern to me and a bit awkward, to say the least, and the portrayal by Robert Carlyle certainly didn't need this extra psychological excuse for his character-development.
I read some indignant comments here on the Queen Anne by Sira Stampe, but I liked her portrayal very much, she gave this stiff and disregarded queen poise and strength and she brought in the few laughs that at times gratefully counterbalanced the heaviness of this long (but certainly not over-long!) and dramatic story.
All in all a great watch and I rank it 9 out of 10.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Loved this adaptation of the historical time of James VI of England.
What I was not too sure of is was James VI a bisexual? Because he is
portrayed as a cruel unfeeling husband to his wife who at first treats
her merely as a breeding mare and is callous and a brute, but then is
seen liking the company of young men! In one particular scene James is
alone with one of the conspirators and in a deal wants him to perform a
sex act on him was this a true fact? I have not read in any history
books that the king of England was bisexual so was it just a sub plot?
Well played by Robert Carlisle who plays him as a cruel selfish man
with a bad leg that he drags around.
Loved the whole thing great acting from all, Guy Fawkes played by Michael Fassbender was very good a moody fellow who would do anything for his cause.
I thoroughly recommend this drama very very good love the execution scene it showed gore and fear.
Clemence Posey stars as the young and beautiful Mary, Queen of Scots in
this thrilling tale of murder, deceit and religion. Upon the death of
her mother the young Mary travels back to her homeland of Scotland from
France after 13 years in exile. Discovering that her religion is
considered evil Mary tries to allow Catholics and Protestants to
worship in there own way unbeknown to her, her half brother Lord James
is conspiring with Mary's rival, the Protestant Elizabeth 1st to plan
Mary's downfall and replace her as King of Scotland.
When Mary marries the English, and powerful Lord Darnley, James begins to fear for his ambitions even more, when Mary becomes pregnant, and with the birth of her son, the future King James. Lord James realise his plans are destroyed.
With her marriage becoming tempestuous and violent Mary seeks solitude away from her violent husband in the arms of her faithful guard Bothwell, a move which was to become her downfall, for the sake of her son Mary places herself in the hands of her enemy and abdicates.
The series picks up again around 20 years later with James VI ruling Scotland and awaiting the death of the English Queen Elizabeth so he can claim her crown, when he does ascend to the throne all seems well, the people welcome him and except that they have a Protestant King, what he doesn't count on is a group of powerful Catholics, determined he will not destroy their faith and set to blowing up Parliament and the King. Learning of the plan James enlists the help of his adviser, the questionable Lord Cecill and his ill-fated spy Lady Margaret, to identify Guy Fawkes and his group and bring them to justice.
Given the pronounced anti-Catholic bias of most contemporary English
history, one might think that any attempt to redress the balance might be
welcomed. Alas, Jimmy McGovern's drama, 'Gunpowder, Treason and Plot',
proves this not to be the case. Its greatest problem is its unfortunate
tendency to encapsulate complex political issues in slogans, and those
slogans, in turn, in characters - the portrayal of John Knox (who does
little more than storm about and utter his most famous quote) exemplifies
this. This, and the number of historical liberties taken (James I, for
example, discovers the Gunpowder Plot in person) make the story a less
accurate guide to the past than even 'Braveheart'.
The series is not helped either by some substandard acting. Clemence Posey, with her bizarre French-American-Scottish accent, is mostly inaudible as Mary Queen of Scots and seems to take most of the cues for her performance from Mila Jovovitch's disastrous turn as Joan of Arc in 'Messenger'. Sira Stampe is robotic as James I's wife, while Robert Carlyle's James is as unconvincing as he is unhinged. Also detracting from our enjoyment are the understaffed battle scenes, the histrionic tone, and a decidedly anachronistic portrayal of sexuality.
Surprisingly, given McGovern's own politics, there's almost no hint of republicanism here, although within a few decades Britain was engulfed by a civil war that disputed absolutely the relevance of monarchy: perhaps this is ignored because it was a Protestant rebellion. Instead, we get a boring, linear drama of good queen Mary, bad queen Elisabeth and mad king James. I'm still certain that somewhere, behind the propaganda, there's an interesting story - how did hatred of Catholocism spread so rapidly when only a handful of years previously, everyone in England was Catholic? But this film does little to open one's eyes.
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