Gunpowder, Treason & Plot (Part 2)

Gunpowder, Treason & Plot (2004)  Director:  Gillies MacKinnon  Screenplay:  James McGovern  Starring: Robert Carlyle, Clémence Poésy, Tim McInnerny, Kevin McKidd, Paul Nicholls, Sira Stampe, Catherine McCormack, Tadeusz Pasternak, Steven Duffy, Richard Harrington, Emilia Fox, Sam Troughton, Richard Coyle, Michael Fassbender


Doing a little reading about the reign of James I prior to the Gunpowder Plot to support this review, I discovered that he became king of Scotland (as James VI) at the age of 13 months when his mother was forced to abdicate; that he spent some time imprisoned; that all four of his regents (including his half-uncle, James Stewart) died violently; that James and his wife, Anne of Denmark, created a court where literature, drama, art and music flourished; that he wrote two scholarly works himself; that he presided over a witchcraft trial; and that the Gunpowder Plot took shape only in the wake of two other failed plots to remove or kill him.

You’d know none of this from watching Gunpowder, Treason & Plot, however.  With all this fascinating and unfamiliar material at their disposal, one does wonder why the makers of this historical drama instead fell back on giving us yet another re-hash of Elizabeth vs Mary. Perhaps it was because the real story of James’s reign didn’t lend itself to a simplistic Protestant/Catholic schema. Or perhaps the choice was dictated by the same mindset that seems to have mandated the production of a new version of Jane Eyre every eighteen months. God forbid they should give us something we haven’t all seen before.

Even more contentious that this production’s selective use of facts, however, is its presentation of James himself, who is depicted as a weak, snivelling, easily manipulated, self-loathing homosexual. There was and still is debate over James’s sexuality, of course, but Gunpowder, Treason & Plot puts a particularly nasty spin upon it, with James only able to work himself up to sex with his wife after betraying or murdering someone, or watching executions, and fleeing his own brief and brutal wedding-night for the arms of his young male lover. (Screenwriter James McGovern seems unpleasantly addicted to scenes of violent defloration.) The story’s low point is reached when Sir Thomas Percy, sent to the Scottish court to plead tolerance for Catholics once James succeeds to the English throne, gets the desired promise only in exchange for performing forced oral sex on James. Apart from subsequently sinking into alcoholism, Percy is driven by this incident to involve himself in the Gunpowder Plot after James reneges on his promise. He does so declaring that, “It’s better to die than to live on one’s knees.”

So to speak.

Robert Carlyle does what he can with the character as written, but ends up relying more than he should upon James’s clubfoot (did James have a clubfoot?), until with his limping and tics and mannerisms, he begins to suggest Richard Dreyfuss doing Richard III in The Goodbye Girl – only that’s meant to be funny.

Both unable and unwilling to show us the royal marriage as it was (Anne was only fourteen when she and James married), this version ignores the real affection that existed between James and Anne during the early years of their joint reign, and instead makes Anne disgusted and repulsed by her weakling husband, even aside from his sexual orientation, only learning to respect (and even desire) him when he learns to be even more amoral, vicious, false and manipulative than the politicians who surround him. It also has her supporting and, indeed, insisting upon James’s betrayal of his promise of tolerance for the Catholics, over which he feels some guilt, even though there is good evidence that Anne herself converted to Catholicism late in her life.

Gunpowder, Treason & Plot has Anne arriving in England in the hours before the execution of James’s mother. This pretty much sets the tone of the historical accuracy of this production, as James and Anne were married in Denmark two years after Mary went to the block. Here, James is depicted as entering into a conspiracy with Elizabeth I’s chief minister, Sir Robert Cecil, who promises him the throne of England in exchange for keeping Scotland passive in the wake of Mary’s execution. In order to achieve this, James must confront his own ministers, who are all for war. First he dissuades them from an immediate attack, on the grounds of needing a little time to grieve for his mother before he can join them, and then he has them all murdered the moment they turn their backs on him.

These early scenes also present us with this production’s most irritating aspect, as it has James addressing the camera directly. This “breaking of the wall” can work – the recent adaptation of Anthony Trollope’s He Knew He Was Right used it to some effect – but it’s jarring here. For one thing, it is used spasmodically instead of with any consistency; and rather than serve a specific purpose, it seems to indicate only that James McGovern couldn’t think of a better way to convey his characters’ motives to the viewer. And really, we can only wince during the scene that introduces us to the man who will be the prime mover in the Gunpowder Plot, Sir Robert Catesby, who not only speaks to the camera, but in doing so denounces Protestantism as a faith, “Invented to help a king dump a wife.” I wasn’t aware that in 1601, women, let alone queens, got dumped.

While James and Anne are twiddling their thumbs in Scotland, waiting for Elizabeth to die, Sir Robert Cecil, is leading a violent campaign against the Catholics, breaking up masses, hanging the priests, and arresting the leaders of the Catholic community. It is at this time that Thomas Percy sees James to plead for tolerance – with what dual outcomes, we already know. However, when James becomes king of England, his first impulse is to keep his dubiously elicited promise, freeing the Catholic prisoners and stopping the persecution – until he learns that England’s coffers are almost bare, and that fines levied against recusant Catholics are all that’s keeping things afloat. So much for tolerance.

In the wake of this, the plot begins to come together. The main conspirators, Robert Catesby, Thomas Percy, Sir Francis Tresham and Thomas Wintour, having tried and failed to secure Spanish backing for a Catholic rebellion, recruit Guy Fawkes, first seen fighting for the Spanish against the English in Holland. Here, the Catholic’s plan is to blow up both parliament and the entire royal family, then to cease control in the anarchy that follows. In fact, the plotters intended to install James and Anne’s daughter, Elizabeth, who for some reason was living apart from her family at the time, as a figurehead but legitimate Catholic queen.

I must say, one of the most successful aspects of this production is its quite subtle handling of the three children, who are simply always there, poor things: at executions, while their mother is in labour, while plots and double-crosses are in motion. We note, too, the camera’s habit of resting on the boy who will grow up to be Charles I. They are also the centre of one of the drama’s few gentle moments, when James finds himself strangely moved by the sight of Anne and the children lying on a bed together, her arms about them tenderly as she tells them stories of Denmark. I think we’re supposed to infer “mother issues”…understandably, I guess.

We will never know for certain the whole truth about the Gunpowder Plot and its discovery – confessions under torture notwithstanding. Here, as I complained about in Part 1 of this review, the failure of the conspiracy is due predominantly to the stupidity of those involved. First we have a major role in the plot assigned to Thomas Wintour, who has just embarked upon his first serious love-affair – with a girl who turns out to be one of Robert Cecil’s spies. Loose lips don’t only sink ships, it seems. Wintour also tries to recruit his brother, John, into the conspiracy in a public place, giving the man whose been following him plenty of chance to see their discord, overhear their quarrel – and mark the hitherto innocent John as one of the plotters.  Meanwhile, the responsibility for the purchasing of the gunpowder and the hiring of the room under the Parliament is given to Thomas Percy, despite his alcoholism – and he proceeds to fulfil both tasks using his own name.

Finally, although he has already been revealed as vacillating and likely to betray them during the debate on warning the Catholic parliamentarians, Sir Francis Tresham is given an opportunity to warn his brother-in-law, Lord Monteagle, of the plot, who immediately threatens to reveal all to the king. To cover himself, Tresham has his wife, Anne, write an “anonymous” letter, so that Monteagle need not reveal the actual source of his information. The true author of this famously ambiguous letter, which the real Monteagle received and promptly showed to Robert Cecil, has never been identified, although Francis Tresham was indeed the main suspect.

(Strangely, in the midst of all this self-destructive behaviour, omitted is the notorious true incident in which Robert Catesby and several of his fellow conspirators managed to set themselves on fire while trying to dry some gunpowder. Here, they go out instead like Butch and Sundance in Bolivia.)

Of course, given their failure to discover the truth on their own in spite of all this blundering, Robert Cecil and his people don’t exactly emerge looking like masterminds, either. Thomas Percy’s largely unconcealed activities come to light only when he is betrayed, while Cecil’s other main source of information is cut off, literally, when upon discovering the truth about his mistress, Thomas Wintour strangles her to death in the middle of sex. (Oh, goody – a third horribly violent sex scene!)

While the details of the uncovering of the plot, the discovery of the gunpowder and the arrest of Guy Fawkes do remain somewhat uncertain, it certainly didn’t happen as it happens here. Gunpowder, Treason & Plot has James seeing his opportunity, and taking credit not only for interpreting the letter correctly (which he may in fact have done: given the circumstances of his father’s death, a well-developed paranoia in James over the potential uses of gunpowder wouldn’t have been unlikely), but also for personally leading the search and arresting Fawkes. This version of events also has him delivering a climactic speech in which he reveals and denounces the conspirators, truly seizes power, and puts his unruly parliment in its place…before, for the first time, being invited to his wife’s bed. Of course, it was actually Sir Edward Coke who led the investigation into the conspiracy and who described to parliament the gruesome fate in store for the guilty parties – but why let facts get in the way of a good dramatic scene?

4 Comments to “Gunpowder, Treason & Plot (Part 2)”

  1. Kipling puts it rather well, I think:

    The child of Mary Queen of Scots,
    A shifty mother’s shiftless son,
    Bred up among intrigues and plots,
    Learned in all things, wise in none.
    Ungainly, babbling, wasteful, weak,
    Shrewd, clever, cowardly, pedantic,
    The sight of steel would blanch his cheek,
    The smell of baccy drive him frantic.
    He was the author of his line–
    He wrote that witches should be burnt;
    He wrote that monarchs were divine,
    And left a son who–proved they weren’t!

    (came here from b-masters, and this looks like great fun)

  2. Ha! Yes, that’s brilliant…and much more convincing than anything Jimmy McGovern gave us! 🙂

    Thanks for the visit. I only hope this thing works out!

  3. It will work out, Lyz. As evidence, I submit your above use of “So to speak” which was bloody brilliant.

  4. Aww, thanks, Psy! 😀

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