Archive for ‘DVD review’

22/01/2013

It’s just a jump to the left…

So after bringing in the New Year with a viewing of Captain Blood, I got hold of a copy of the novel by Rafael Sabatini, in order to find out how much they had in common. Not too unexpectedly, the film – although a rousing swashbuckler – bears only a general resemblance to the book upon which it is based.

The change that leapt out at me was naturally one of dialogue: much to my surprise, it turns out that neither of the slurs against James II that I so fondly quoted emanate from the novel, but were rather the invention of screenwriter Casey Robinson.

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(On the other hand, one of my other favourite lines from the film – “He’s chivalrous to the point of idiocy” – is a direct lift from the novel.)

However, despite this specific lack, the novel has scattered throughout its pages enough anti-James sentiment to warm the cockles of my resentful heart. It would be fair, I think, to say that the novel Captain Blood has two different villains: Spain as a nation, and James as an individual.

As for the film— Well, put simply, it’s been cleaned up into an emotionally shallow, albeit thoroughly entertaining, adventure story. It is full of bloodless violence, and entirely lacking the novel’s blunt depiction of the brutalities of the age. Its main villains, Colonel Bishop and Levasseur the pirate, though bad enough in context, are shadows of their vicious novel-selves.

Much of the novel’s focus is upon the shifting sands of European politics at this time, the making and breaking of allegiances, and their impact upon the New World; perhaps a third of its story concerns Peter’s escalating, and escalatingly personal, warfare against an admiral in the Spanish navy.

The film discards nearly all of this, maintaining only such references to James and the Monmouth Rebellion as it needs to emphasise the brutality of the existing regime and the injustice of Peter’s conviction. It also manages to completely miss the point of the novel, in which Peter and his men attack only Spanish ships, by having the pirates attack all ships indiscriminatingly.

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Inevitably, in place of politics the film places a much greater emphasis upon the romance between Peter and Arabella Bishop, the beautiful niece of Peter’s deadliest enemy; although it does earn some points in this respect by having Arabella personally buy Peter at the slave-auction rather than just convincing her uncle to do so, thus upping the ante between them. Curiously, the film omits the novel’s single most romantic touch, Peter re-naming his first captured ship the Arabella. (He cries when it sinks; the film omits that, too.)

Conversely, in keeping with Sabatini’s “Boy’s Own” approach to his story, Arabella is present in the novel far less often in the flesh than as an ideal, with the lovesick Peter trying to live up to his image of her and so holding his men to a course of “chivalrous piracy”, which does in fact do them some good in the long run (although not with Arabella herself, who hears a garbled version of Peter’s rescue of Mlle d’Ogeron, the daughter of the Governor of Tortuga, from Levasseur that does him no favours whatsoever).

Likewise, although he never entirely loses the ability to laugh at himself, the novel’s Peter is an older, much more cynical and emotionally damaged individual than the laughing rogue portrayed by Errol Flynn. Although early qualified in medicine, an adventurous spirit saw  the young Peter Blood meddling in Europe’s many wars: learning naval tactics under the famous Admiral de Ruyter for the Dutch against the French; serving the French in the Spanish Netherlands; and spending two years in a Spanish prison – emerging from these experiences with a grasp of both “vile” French and “pure” Castilian,  a deep hatred of the Spanish, and a great desire for a quiet life which is destined to remain unfulfilled.

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The opening of the novel plunges us deeply into precisely the reason I was reading it in the first place. Of all places in the world, Peter Blood has hung up his shingle in Bridgewater, and in July 1865 finds himself a minority of one when the rest of the town’s population is swept up in an enthusiastic fervour over the imminent arrival of the Duke of Monmouth. Peter’s refusal to have anything to do with the matter gets him branded a coward and an outcast, but the issue is simply that he knows too much:

    To him they were fools rushing in wicked frenzy upon their ruin. You see, he knew too much about this fellow Monmouth and the pretty brown slut who had borne him, to be deceived by the legend of legitimacy, on the strength of which this standard of rebellion had been raised. He had read the absurd proclamation posted at the Cross at Bridgewater – as it had been posted also at Taunton and elsewhere – setting forth that “upon the decease of our Sovereign Lord Charles the Second, the right of succession to the Crown of England, Scotland, France, and Ireland, with the dominions and territories thereunto belonging, did legally descend and devolve upon the most illustrious and high-born Prince James, Duke of Monmouth, son and heir apparent to the said King Charles the Second.”
    It had moved him to laughter, as had the further announcement that “James Duke of York did first cause the said late King to be poysoned, and immediately thereupon did usurp and invade the Crown.”
    He knew not which was the greater lie. For Mr. Blood had spent a third of his life in the Netherlands, where this same James Scott – who now proclaimed himself James the Second, by the grace of God, King, et cetera – first saw the light some six-and-thirty years ago, and he was acquainted with the story current there of the fellow’s real paternity. Far from being legitimate – by virtue of a pretended secret marriage between Charles Stuart and Lucy Walter – it was possible that this Monmouth who now proclaimed himself King of England was not even the illegitimate child of the late sovereign. What but ruin and disaster could be the end of this grotesque pretension? How could it be hoped that England would ever swallow such a Perkin? And it was on his behalf, to uphold his fantastic claim, that these West Country clods, led by a few armigerous Whigs, had been seduced into rebellion!

The rebellion, of course, goes exactly as Peter predicts it will, but his intention of staying out of it is shattered when his neighbour, Jeremiah Pitt, drags him out to attend the wounded Lord Gildoy: a rebel, yes, but someone who has been a good friend to Peter and done him many favours, so that as neither a man nor a doctor can Peter honestly refuse to give his assistance. He is, at this point, sufficiently unacquainted with the incumbent monarch to assume that his merely providing medical treatment to a possibly dying man will not be be the cause of any particular trouble. He is soon disabused, and finds himself imprisoned awaiting trial for his life. If this was not enough to alter his political opinions, other events are…

…and you may imagine the evil joy I felt, when I found the finger of scorn being pointed in a third, equally deserving direction:

    Mr. Blood heard that tale with the same indifference with which he had received the news of Monmouth’s death. But one shameful thing he heard in connection with this which left him not quite so unmoved, and served to nourish the contempt he was forming for King James. His Majesty had consented to see Monmouth. To have done so unless he intended to pardon him was a thing execrable and damnable beyond belief; for the only other object in granting that interview could be the evilly mean satisfaction of spurning the abject penitence of his unfortunate nephew.
   Later they heard that Lord Grey, who after the Duke – indeed, perhaps, before him – was the main leader of the rebellion, had purchased his own pardon for forty thousand pounds. Peter Blood found this of a piece with the rest. His contempt for King James blazed out at last. “Why, here’s a filthy mean creature to sit on a throne. If I had known as much of him before as I know to-day, I don’t doubt I should have given cause to be where I am now.”

And that’s before he meets Judge George Jeffreys.

(In another clean-up moment, the film has Jeffreys dying of tuberculosis, rather than the excruciating kidney disease that actually did kill him. Also, the convicted rebels are merely to be hanged, rather than hanged, drawn and quartered, as in reality.)

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The lives of Peter Blood and some of his fellow convicted rebels are saved when James is convinced that transportation and slavery would be a more profitable way of proceeding – and just as fatal in the long run. On the nightmare journey to Jamaica, Peter’s medical skill is called upon, and he arrives in Jamaica with a reputation as a skilled physician. He is bought by the brutal Colonel Bishop – catching the interested eye of Miss Arabella Bishop, the Colonel’s niece and ward, in the process – but is soon worth more to his owner as a doctor than as a slave. His success goes over like a lead balloon with Jamaica’s incumbent doctors, who enter into a conspiracy with Peter to buy a boat in which he and a handful of fellow-slaves can escape. Circumstances both hinder and favour the breakout, with Peter and the others finally making their escape under the cover of an attack upon Port Royal by the Spanish.

From there the book and the film part company for quite some time, with the former concentrating on Peter’s individual war with the Spanish admiral – the older brother of the man in charge of the illegal attack on Port Royal, who is captured by Peter and his men (along with his ship, the soon-to-be Arabella) and dies in their custody, although not really through any fault of theirs.

However, in spite of how busy the pirates are kept, there’s always time to insult James Stuart:

Both Esteban and Blood made haste to agree with him, and then Blood raised his glass, and drank to the glory of Spain and the damnation of the besotted James who occupied the throne of England. The latter part of his toast was at least sincere…

So you may imagine my horror when, in another plot twist omitted from the film, Peter Blood finds himself accepting a commission in the navy of King James…

This nightmare volte-face comes about when Peter rescues from the Spanish Arabella herself and Lord Julian Wade, a relative of the Secretary of State, Lord Sunderland, who has been sent to the West Indies to try and “solve” the pirate situation by offering Peter a pardon and a commission. At first, Peter’s reaction is everything we might expect, and hope:

    “Ye’re my guest aboard this ship,” said he, “and I still have some notion of decent behaviour left me from other days, thief and pirate though I may be. So I’ll not be telling you what I think of you for daring to bring me this offer, or of my Lord Sunderland – since he’s your kinsman – for having the impudence to send it. But it does not surprise me at all that one who is a minister of James Stuart’s should conceive that every man is to be seduced by bribes into betraying those who trust him.” He flung out an arm in the direction of the waist, whence came the half-melancholy chant of the lounging buccaneers.
    “Again you misapprehend me,” cried Lord Julian, between concern and indignation. “That is not intended. Your followers will be included in your commission.”
    “And d’ ye think they’ll go with me to hunt their brethren – the Brethren of the Coast? On my soul, Lord Julian, it is yourself does the misapprehending. Are there not even notions of honour left in England? Oh, and there’s more to it than that, even. D’ye think I could take a commission of King James’s? I tell you I wouldn’t be soiling my hands with it – thief and pirate’s hands though they be. Thief and pirate is what you heard Miss Bishop call me to-day – a thing of scorn, an outcast. And who made me that? Who made me thief and pirate?”

As you will have gathered, Peter and Arabella – who is struggling with her own confused emotions, and still smarting from the story of Mlle d’Ogeron – have already exchanged pleasantries. Between that, and her mere presence, and his growing conviction that Arabella is in love with Lord Julian, as he certainly is with her, Peter completely loses his head, and blunders straight into the British navy and Colonel Bishop. With escape impossible, and the lives of all his men at stake, Peter makes a deal with the devil – but insists that those of his men who do not wish to accept a commission or a pardon (which is most of them) should be given a ship and a head-start.

And afterwards—well, he doesn’t quite go about flagellating himself and howling, “UNCLEAN! UNCLEAN!”, but that’s what it amounts to. It is left to Arabella to put James Stuart in his place:

    “Your resolve delivered me from a horrible danger,” she admitted. And she shivered at the memory of it. “But I do not understand why you should have hesitated when first it was proposed to you. It is an honourable service.”
    “King James’s?” he sneered.
    “England’s,” she corrected him in reproof. “The country is all, sir; the sovereign naught. King James will pass; others will come and pass; England remains, to be honourably served by her sons, whatever rancour they may hold against the man who rules her in their time.”

In spite of this intended comfort, Peter’s service for James goes just as well – and lasts just as long – as you might anticipate, and in short time he is headed back to Tortuga. However, Peter’s self-disgust runs deep; he feels that he can no longer – no longer honourably – be a pirate. He cannot serve England. He will not serve Spain. What is left but to sell his sword and his boats to the French? (They didn’t have a Foreign Legion back then, but the principal is the same.)

To Peter’s horror, he soon finds himself, in the name of honourable warfare, involved in acts of piracy worst than any he committed as an actual pirate. His remonstrances and protests outrage and offend his commanders, who take the first opportunity to sever the connection between themselves and these skilful but tiresome buccaneers. They have, in any case, other fish to fry – now that France and England are at war…

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Those “fish” are nothing less than an attack upon Port Royal: an attack made frighteningly easy by the absence of Colonel Bishop, now Deputy-Governor of Jamaica, who has deserted his post and taken the fleet with him to hunt his personal nemesis, Peter Blood (and in company with Lord Julian Wade, who by this time has his own reasons for hating Peter).

Peter and his men are on their way to French Hispaniola in pursuit of their former colleagues when they hear guns, and see an attack upon a single English ship. Upon rescuing the survivors, Peter finds himself confronted by a choleric Englishman named Lord Willoughby, and the Dutch Admiral van der Kuylen, whose ship was sunk. While the Dutchman seems amused at being rescued by a notorious pirate, Willoughby is furious and aggressive, insulting Peter who responds with a quiet courtesy that the Englishman takes for sarcasm:

    The fierce little gentleman stared at him. “Damme! Do you permit yourself to be ironical?” he disapproved him, and possibly with a view to correcting any such tendency, proceeded to introduce himself. “I am Lord Willoughby, King William’s Governor-General of the West Indies, and this is Admiral van der Kuylen, commander of His Majesty’s West Indian fleet, at present mislaid somewhere in this damned Caribbean Sea.”
    “King William?” quoth Blood, and he was conscious that Pitt and Dyke, who were behind him, now came edging nearer, sharing his own wonder. “And who may be King William, and of what may he be King?”
    “What’s that?” In a wonder greater than his own, Lord Willoughby stared back at him. At last: “I am alluding to His Majesty King William III – William of Orange – who, with Queen Mary, has been ruling England for two months and more.”
    There was a moment’s silence, until Blood realised what he was being told…

And from here, the long-severed book and film finally reunite, with Peter and his men falling upon the superior French forces and defeating them in grim and bloody battle, saving Port Royal and redeeming themselves in the process. Afterwards, Peter is appointed the new Governor of Jamaica and – after finally coming to an understanding with Arabella – is left to deal with his future uncle-in-law…

Though it is undoubtedly a Hollywoodisation of its source novel, the film version of Captain Blood is, as I have indicated, a perfectly entertaining adventure film, with all the usual Warner Bros. benefits: direction by Michael Curtiz, a score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, a clever, frequently funny screenplay by Casey Robinson, the match-made-in-heaven co-casting of Errol Flynn and Olivia de Haviland, and poor Basil Rathbone dying on the point of Flynn’s most undeserving sword, for the first but certainly not the last time.

The novel, however, is an altogether darker and more complex work—while for the James Stuart haters amongst us, well, it’s all good.

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18/12/2010

Charles II: The Power & The Passion (Parts 3&4)

Charles II: The Power & The Passion (2003)  Director:  Joe Wright  Screenplay:  Adrian Hodges  Starring: Rufus Sewell, Rupert Graves, Martin Freeman, Charlie Creed-Miles, Shirley Henderson, Helen McCrory, Christian Coulson, Ian McDiarmid, Shaun Dingwall, Emma Pierson, Mélanie Thierry, David Bradley, Eddie Marsan, Diana Rigg, Tabitha Wady, Anne-Marie Duff, Thierry Perkins-Lyautey, Jochum ten Haaf, Alice Patten, Cyrille Thouvenin, Robert Kavanah, Simon Woods, Robert East, Dorian Lough, Rob Jarvis

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Part 3 of Charles II: The Power & The Passion opens in the aftermath of the Great Fire of London, with the anti-Catholic rumblings that formed a background for much of the earlier drama coming to the fore: while there are some who see the fire as a judgement upon Charles and his court, far more are lending an ear to the story of the “Papist” who was seen running through Pudding Lane with a torch. As a weary Charles comments later, when people have lost everything, it’s no use trying to tell them it was just an accident. It is the end of any hope for religious tolerance, and he knows it.

In Versailles, Charles’s mother is dying. Her last words to her daughter, Henrietta Anne (Ann-Marie Duff), known as “Minette”, are of Charles: that he must be made to see how Louis XIV (Thierry Perkins-Lyautey) can help him, and that he must die a Catholic. Afterwards, Minette is approached by Louis, who is also her brother-in-law. He, too, speaks of Charles, in bitter reference to the Triple Alliance, England’s pact with Sweden and Holland. Minette argues that the pact was Parliament’s doing, not Charles’s, and Louis responds by ordering her to England, with an offer of his friendship – a very generous friendship – should he convert to Catholicism.

There are only the vaguest allusions here, mostly through the mutterings of the eternally sneering Buckingham, to the rumours that Minette and Louis were lovers (some claim he was the real father of her eldest child), but it does make her husband, the Duc D’Orleans (Cyrille Thouvenin), known as “Monsieur”, not only openly homosexual but violently abusive.

Back in England, Charles has things other than religion on his mind. Well, not his mind, exactly: a young actress called Nell Gwynn (Emma Pierson) has caught his attention, which is just too bad for Barbara Villiers, whose star begins to fade as Nell’s rises, and whose latest baby is disclaimed by its putative father. Barbara’s spiralling debauchery and extravagance have Charles’s ministers and followers baying for her blood, although her final eviction does not come until Charles catches her in bed with a young John Churchill (Simon Woods). The series chooses a slightly more dignified encounter with Charles for the future Duke of Marlborough than history usually allows, which generally has him either hiding from his king in a cupboard, or jumping out of the window to avoid him. This version has him admitting he took money from an “insistent” Barbara in exchange for his services. (Come to think of it, is that more dignified?)

Meanwhile, Nell is going from strength to strength: Charles buys her a house, Sir Peter Lely paints her portrait, and as she lolls about in the company of Charles, Buckingham and the Earl of Rochester (Robert Cavanah), the latter composes his famous (and much re-written) epigram on Charles, who gives his equally famous retort.

In the face of Charles’s general intransigence, Parliament begins to tighten the financial screws on him, meaning that when Minette makes her visit, she finds her brother in a receptive mood. Charles’s ministers look on apprehensively, interpreting this “family visit”, this “visit for her health”, quite correctly. When the terms of Louis’ cash offer to Charles are made known – to recognise his sovereignty over the Netherlands, to support him against the Dutch, to declare war against the Dutch themselves, as soon as an excuse is found – the ministers, Shaftesbury in particular, are outraged, demanding to know what Parliament will think of Charles taking French money to rule alone?

Charles responds coolly that Parliament will know nothing of the situation, because no-one in the room will speak of it – and what’s more, each of his ministers will sign his name to the treaty. Slowly, with shame and reluctance, they do. It is Shaftesbury who hesitates the longest, but in the end even he does as he is told. Buckingham, meanwhile, is disturbed and angry at the realisation that Charles trusted the Earl of Danby (Shaun Dingwall) with his decision, rather than himself, and begins his drift towards opposition.

But Shaftesbury & Co. don’t know the half of it. In a private meeting, Charles and Minette discuss the other part of Louis’ offer: enough money to rule without Parliament, in exchange for Charles’s conversion to Catholicism. In one of his ugliest manoeuvres, Charles does not sign the secret treaty himself, but maintains plausible deniability by compelling his two Catholic ministers, Lord Arlington (Robert East) and Sir Thomas Clifford (Dorian Lough) to sign it instead. It is only Minette who dares voice the truth of the situation: that Charles has no intention of converting, but every intention of taking Louis’ money.

Minette’s visit to England may not have been for her health, as contended, but she is ill – for the simple reason that she is being poisoned. She dies shortly after her return to France. Although the official verdict on Minette’s sudden death was peritonitis, there has always been a strong belief that she was murdered, probably by her husband. This is how her death is presented here, with perhaps just a faint underlying  implication that, having served her purpose in getting the treaties signed, she is then disposed of.

Minette’s lady-in-waiting during her visit to England was the young and beautiful Louise de Kéroualle (Mélanie Thierry), who instantly caught Charles’s eye – although with Minette guarding her, nothing happened. Now, Louise is recruited by Louis and given the mission of returning to England, where she will share Charles’s bed (share being the operative word, I guess) and act as Louis’s spy. The carrot dangled is the prospect of Catherine’s premature death and Charles’s subsequent need for a new queen…although as it turned out, Catherine not surprisingly outlived her profligate husband by some twenty years. Louise is soon revealed as a very clumsy spy, and Charles isn’t fooled for a moment – but what the hey, he sleeps with her anyway.

And the visitors just keep coming, as Charles affectionately embraces his nephew, William of Orange (Jochum ten Haaf). William himself is less kindly intentioned, accusing Charles openly of being either bribed or tricked by Louis, and on that basis declaring war on the Dutch. Assuming that William has come to make terms, Charles turns the other cheek to this, but he is soon disabused. Declaring that Holland has not surrendered and will not surrender, William adds that if England wants to offer terms, he will listen; that England cannot afford to fight indefinitely; that, after all, it is only a matter of time before Parliament cuts Charles’s supply. “When you are ready to talk sensibly, you will not find me unreasonable,” he says calmly. As William bows himself out, Charles gives a half-smile, obviously impressed with his nephew’s cojones – and, perhaps, his grasp of English politics.

The Duchess of York dies, and almost before her body is cold, James announces to Charles his intention of marrying Mary of Modena. Charles begins with dissuasion and progresses to forbidding the match – and is ignored. Here, for the first time, is mooted the possibility of James’s exclusion from the line of succession. A meeting of Charles and James with the ministry rapidly turns violent, with accusations of loyalty to the Pope on one hand provoking an explosion against the bastard usurper, Elizabeth from James. “The sooner the country should be brought back to the path of righteousness, the better for us all!”

And that, of course, is that. As Charles closes his eyes in silent pain and Buckingham drops his head into his hands, the battle-lines are drawn. The Protestant ministers insist upon the Test Act being enforced, the first consequence of which is the resignation of Arlington. Soon afterwards, Buckingham makes his way to a certain coffee-house, where he meets with Shaftesbury. Buckingham begins by protesting that he is Charles’s friend and loyal subject, but soon learns that it is he who has been betrayed, when Shaftesbury reveals what he has discovered about the second secret treaty: “One which bound King Charles to take the Catholic faith, in exchange for French gold and a Papist army to suppress his own people.” As Buckingham chews this over, Shaftesbury proposes two possible courses of action: Charles can divorce Catherine and re-marry; or if not, well, he already has a Protestant son…

So we stand at the conclusion of Part 3 of this series, which is, as we have seen, crammed with incident and quite compelling. Part 4, however, is—well, actually, I can tell you exactly what’s wrong with Part 4. This series came to me as a two-disc set, with the first three episodes on Disc 1. When I put in Disc 2, I expected there to be another three episodes. There was one.

It’s only a personal irony, of course, but given that it was the events of the following years, the years of the Popish Plot and the Exclusion Crisis, that led me to watch this series in the first place, I couldn’t help feeling rather let down that it was exactly those events, of all things, that it chose to skimp on. Even the bloodbath brought on by the Popish Plot is skimped! And yes, I suppose the Popish Plot and the Exclusion Crisis did consist predominantly of a great deal of arguing in the House of Commons, and of pamphlets in the bookstores, rather than anything “dramatic” – but really, this whole episode feels rushed and unsatisfying, particularly in the way in which it concludes.

The other striking thing about this episode is that, having kept a fair balance to this point, from here it increasingly asks the viewer to sympathise with Charles. It emphasises his growing isolation, both emotionally and politically (irony of ironies, he really only has Catherine to rely on – in both capacities), and the ultimate futility of his determination to hold on to the crown and the succession. On the back of his various mistakes, stupidities and duplicities, the sudden emergence towards the end of an all-wise and all-seeing Charles (even though it is only for the sake of dramatic convenience) is particularly discomforting. So too is the tone of the final parliamentary scene, when Charles confronts his enemies in full monarchical regalia: Ooh, look, isn’t he handsome in his robes and crown? He must be right after all!

We open in the earliest days of the Popish Plot, with Christopher Kirkby (Rob Jarvis) bringing the “found” written proof of the conspiracy to Lord Danby, and accusing the Jesuits in general, and Sir George Wakeman, Catherine’s physician, in particular, of plotting to assassinate Charles. He tells Danby that he got the papers from one Israel Tonge, who in turn received them from a man called Titus Oates (Eddie Marsan). These two are summoned to Whitehall, where Oates insists that the Pope and Louis XIV are behind the conspiracy, and that Catherine and James are both privy to it. This is enough to bring Charles, who has been listening secretly to the interrogation, into the room, where he demands the names of the Catholic conspirators. After only a slight hesitation, Oates names all of England’s most prominent Catholic noblemen, along with Sir George Wakeman and Edward Coleman, Mary of Modena’s secretary.

Having listened to all this with an unconcealed scepticism amounting almost to amusement, Charles fastens upon Oates’ insistence that he originally became aware of the plot by overhearing details of it within the queen’s household during one of his visits to the palace on business. Reasoning that Oates must, therefore, know his way around Whitehall very well, Charles asks him to lead the way to the spot where he overheard the plot – a test that ends with an embarrassing encounter with the Royal Water Closet. For Charles, this says it all.

Now, oddly enough, we get the one point in this episode in which it is profoundly unjust to Charles, and where I am prepared to defend him. We can criticise him for many, many things, but he certainly did not just turn his back upon events at this juncture and leave Parliament to “deal with it”, and expect it to be done – while he, mind you, went off to the races! On the contrary, Charles tried repeatedly to expose the plot as false and prevent the rush of events, but was out-manoeuvred and finally backed into a corner by a Parliament that had no intention of letting such an opportunity slip, no matter how much innocent blood might be spilled as a result. Here, we get a crude shorthand of these events when Buckingham beats the real story out of Oates – that the plot was his revenge upon the Catholics for his expulsion from a Jesuit seminary under accusations of attempted sodomy – and then warns him to keep his mouth shut, or else. Before long, “the truth” is all over England.

Strangely, the extent of the Catholic massacre is very much played down here, with only the executions of Edward Coleman and, eventually, that of  Viscount Stafford, one of the Catholic nobles, foregrounded. These events prompt Charles to send a seething and mistrustful James into exile, so that “the people’s grievance” may be kept out of their sight for a while. Meanwhile, Shaftesbury’s health is failing, and with his time running out, he ups the ante and begins taking dangerous action against Charles.

First, he and Buckingham lure Monmouth into their own plots with the prospect of the crown. (These scenes make it very clear that Monmouth’s attraction for Parliament lie as much in his vanity and weakness, which make him easy to manipulate, as in his Protestantism.) Shaftesbury then reveals to Parliament copies of letters written by Lord Danby, which make reference to the secret treaty with France, and introduces the Exclusion Bill. All this leads to another scene of Charles averting his eyes from his most loyal supporter, in this case Danby, and then throwing him to the wolves…

…but he does save Danby’s life, when Shaftesbury and Buckingham are clamouring for his execution; although it is evident that Danby’s head is their bargaining chip, which they intend to exchange for James’s exclusion from the succession. Thwarted in this, the pair arrange instead for the conviction and condemning of Lord Stafford – an act that requires Charles either to acquiesce to the judicial murder of a loyal and innocent man, or to spare him and damn himself with the English people. Charles is fully aware that if he pardons Stafford, he will give Parliament exactly the weapon it wants. He tries to make Stafford “confess”, arguing that he can then save his life, but Stafford won’t buy his life with a false oath. Still Charles hesitates. It is Catherine who convinces him that he must proceed, or he will lose everything he has fought for – and proceed he does…

In the middle of all this, the series pauses to give us Nell Gwynn’s moment of transcendant glory when, having been taken for that of “that Papist whore”, meaning Louise de Kéroualle, her coach is violently attacked by the London mob: “Good people, you are mistaken. I am the Protestant whore!”

Meanwhile, Monmouth has been on a “publicity tour”, travelling the country and gaining the affection and support of the people – which doesn’t exactly endear him to his father. It is here that the series begins to give us a Charles who is mysteriously prescient about future events, in this case telling Monmouth that he will never be king, and that if he kicks against this fate, he will die a traitor’s death. He then sends Monmouth, too, into exile, telling him on no account to return until summoned. But come back he does, on Shaftesbury’s command…

And here we jump abruptly to the dissolution of Parliament at Oxford, Charles’s supreme moment of individual defiance, and the final defeat of the Exclusionists. In the wake of this, a bewildered Monmouth is sent into permanent exile, a cynical Buckingham simply shrugs and withdraws from politics, while for Shaftesbury, his own mortality staring him in the face, it is the end of everything.

And then we jump again to the series’ uncomfortably awkward final scenes, which has all of the remaining characters (those not in exile) passing their time together, while the suddenly all-knowing Charles predicts each and every one of the various events that will transpire over the next four or five years. Frankly, I find the potted-history approach used here rather irritating. We could have had the Rye House Plot instead of this. Anyway, the series proper concludes when Charles suffers a stroke, but staggers out to his father’s portrait and appeals desperately for his approval before collapsing. In the wake of Charles’s death, we get still more potted history, with each character reciting his or her own fate, which in the case of William of Orange means ascending to the English throne – but it is Charles in voiceover who gets the final word. These closing moments carry far more of a sense of what England lost with the passing of Charles, than of what it gained.

08/12/2010

Charles II: The Power & The Passion (Parts 1&2)

Charles II: The Power & The Passion (2003)  Director:  Joe Wright  Screenplay:  Adrian Hodges  Starring: Rufus Sewell, Rupert Graves, Martin Freeman, Charlie Creed-Miles, Shirley Henderson, Helen McCrory, Christian Coulson, Ian McDiarmid, Shaun Dingwall, Emma Pierson, David Bradley, Eddie Marsan, Diana Rigg, Tabitha Wady, Anne-Marie Duff, Thierry Perkins-Lyautey, Jochum ten Haaf, Alice Patten

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You know, when I set out on this course of reading I knew very little about the Restoration, and I find myself surprised at the amount of knowledge I’ve managed to absorb just by trying to make head or tail of the literature of the day; enough, as it turns out, so that I can spot when the makers of Charles II: The Power & The Passion start tampering with the facts.

This mini-series has been broadcast here at least three times, although for some reason I never watched it properly before. (Probably because I had no interest in the Restoration, ha-ha.) I did catch bits and pieces of it, though, which from what I can gather puts me in more or less the same boat as the American viewers of this series, who got a significantly cut-down version of a drama that is, in my opinion, far too short to start with.

However, the good news here is that, whatever the series’ faults, its production values of are truly excellent. (Finding Kate Harwood’s name in the opening credits was immediately reassuring.) The casting of Rufus Sewell as Charles was a bit of a no-brainer, I guess, but he’s really very good, capturing the mixture of character traits that drove so much of the era’s upheaval. We see Charles’s obsession with his father’s death, and his consequent determination not just to hold the crown, but to revive its divine attribution – and sacrifice anything or anyone that might interfere with his goal.

It is on this point alone that Charles is steadfast, however: in all else he is facile in a way that is occasionally admirable, and frequently dismaying. We see a spirit of compromise and tolerance, particularly in matters of religion, completely out of step with the times; we see also the unfortunate habit of being swayed by just the wrong person at just the wrong time; and above all we see that he is, when it comes to the ladies, a complete putz.

Part 1 opens with the execution of Charles I, which turns out to be the younger Charles’s nightmare (complete with sitting bolt upright in bed – tsk). We find Charles and his entourage in Antwerp – for simplicity’s sake, I imagine, they keep the peripatetic prince fairly stationary – where he is advised and supported by Sir Edward Hyde (Ian McDiarmid), and passes his time in company with his lifelong friend, George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham (Rupert Graves). The latter is bored and frustrated with his position – and Charles’s poverty – and begins to counsel compromise with Cromwell, to Charles’s outrage. At length, Buckingham reveals that he has been invited back to England under promise of forgiveness by Cromwell and with the offer of an advantageous marriage. He accepts, initiating a growing rift between himself and Charles that will ultimately find Buckingham amongst the leaders of Charles’s opponents.

We also have a first glimpse of religious discord, ominously enough within Charles’s own family, as he and his mother, the coldly Catholic widow Henrietta Maria (Diana Rigg), clash over the religion of Charles’s younger brothers: Charles is adament that it is only as the Protestant king of a Protestant country that he can regain his father’s throne; that Parliament will accept nothing else. The queen counters that he would not need Parliament if, as a Catholic king, he joined with Louis XIV, and shared his bounty and his armies. She also recommends the re-Catholicisation of England by the simple expedient of burning all the Protestants at the stake.

Charles soon finds some consolation for his various woes, however, when he encounters one Lady Palmer – aka Barbara Villiers (Helen McCrory), the first and longest-lasting of many, many, many royal mistresses, who would bear Charles five (acknowledged) children, but whose increasing promiscuity and debauchery would eventually see her supplanted and evicted from Whitehall. This series also posits an ongoing affair between Barbara and Buckingham, who was – I think – her half-cousin, and has her seducing the young Duke of Monmouth (Christian Coulson), and encouraging his ambitions. It is via Barbara that we here learn that Buckingham, far from finding the expected pardon in England, has been consigned to the Tower of London by Cromwell.

In the wake of Cromwell’s death and the resignation of Richard Cromwell, the question of the restoration is broached. Her we are introduced to the Earl of Shaftesbury (Martin Freeman), who reveals Charles’s intentions to Parliament – including, typically, a promise to reopen the theatres and allow music and dancing. It also includes an offer of amnesty for those who opposed him; and offer that does not (and did not) extend to those who signed Charles I’s death warrant. The beginning of Charles’s reign is marked by the bloody execution of the condemned (and oh, how these historical dramas love to dwell upon the horror of hanging, drawing and quartering!); although here it is implied that, sickening of the slaughter midway through the process, Charles pardoned those still alive.

Under Barbara’s influence, Buckingham is restored to favour. Barbara further exhibits her power over Charles after the birth of their first child when, as Monmouth looks on in startled admiration, she throws a monumental tantrum from which she emerges triumphant as Countess of Castlemaine. Mistresses and bastards aside, Parliament is already considering the question of Charles’s marriage to Catherine of Braganza (Shirley Henderson), whose dowry outweighs her Catholicism, at least to some. We get the first scuffle here between Charles and Shaftesbury, as the latter protests Catherine’s religion. Charles voices his determination to pursue a policy of religious tolerance: perhaps the noblest of all his intentions and, alas, like most noble intentions at the time, one which came to nothing.

I’m going to make a concerted effort here not to append the word “unfortunate” to every mention of Catherine, but I’m not sure how far I’ll succeed – particularly not in the face of her unkind reception by a snickering royal household, provoked by her appearance, her lack of English, and her outrageous request for a cup of tea; nor in that of the terror with which she prepares herself to submit to her wedding-night: a terror so evident that Charles suggests they postpone things for a while. There’s certainly a careless sort of kindness in this, but at the heart of it, he simply doesn’t find her attractive. The marriage remains unconsumated until a day when Charles, catching Catherine off-guard, dressed in boys’ clothes, her hair loose and romping with a dog, is caught off-guard himself.

There’s a certain detached humour in this series, particularly in the way it views Charles himself, and we get a taste of it here. Upon her arrival in England, it is discovered that Catherine speaks not a word of English; yet before much longer, having become only too well aware of Barbara Villiers, she is throwing the furniture at Charles and screaming about, “Your whore!” She learned that word quickly enough, of course. (“I suspect the queen still has some reservations over Lady Castlemaine’s appointment to the household,” deadpans Sir Edward.)

Meanwhile, James, Duke of York (Charlie Creed-Miles) and Buckingham are agitating for war against the Dutch, against the counsel of Sir Edward Hyde and Shaftesbury. Swayed by James’s muttered aside that the monetary spoils of war would free him from Parliament’s grip, Charles votes yes. Now, we’ve already considered just how bad an idea this was apropos of Henry Neville’s The Isle Of Pines. It also gives us one of the series’ odder glitches, at it places the Battle of Medway before the Great Fire.

Actually, James is having quite a run of outs, as it is now that his affair with Ann Hyde (Tabitha Wady) becomes public due to her pregnancy. The series takes the stance that James was essentially trapped into marriage, whereas there seems reasonable evidence that, despite urgings that no-one expected him to keep the promises he made before the Restoration, he insisted on going through with it. If so—well, no good deed goes unpunished, I guess: it would of course be a child of that marriage to whom James would eventually lose the throne. The script here takes the opposing view chiefly, I imagine, to give us an early scene of Charles refusing to interfere with the succession in any way: having Parliament dissolve James’s marriage and declare his child illegitimate would be setting far too dangerous a precedent.

Part 2 opens with the court gathered around a telescope, as Halley’s Comet passes. Charles tells Catherine that it means nothing, but Sir Edward comments quietly that many see it as a portent: “They foretell disasters and catastrophes before the year is out.” (Possibly this is why they moved Medway.) For Charles himself, the year certainly starts disastrously, with his pursuit of Lady Frances Stewart (Alice Patten) finishing – gasp! – unsuccessfully. (The sorely harrassed young woman had to find ways to hold him off until she could arrange to elope with her lover, the Duke of Richmond.) Elsewhere, the unfortunate Catherine (yeah, I know…), after three childless years, is taking the waters at Tunbridge Wells, which were believed to help with conception; while James is taking Catholic instruction…

For a time it seems that the former, at least, will end well, but Catherine’s joyfully announced pregnancy ends in miscarriage. In her misery, the unfortunate woman (sorry…) wanders into the royal nursery, staring in agonised bewilderment at Barbara and her illegitimate children. “What did you do…to warrant such a sign of Grace…?”

In the wake of Catherine’s miscarriage, Charles recalls James from sea, where he is leading the war against the Dutch in his position of Admiral of the Fleet. James is outraged, but Charles tells him flatly that with only his infant daughters to follow him, his life cannot be risked.

When it becomes apparent that Catherine will never bear a child, an odd evolution takes place in her position at court. In her despair, she becomes one of the few people who will speak the truth to Charles without hesitation; and over time she slowly transforms into Charles’s friend and counsellor – quite a ruthless counsellor at times – but one, perhaps the only one, he can trust completely. It is to Catherine he confides the secret of James’s conversion, predicting that it will bring everything to ruin. Interestingly, Charles’s attitude is entirely secular: he views James’s choice as selfish and ultimately destructive, but there is no hint he sees it as dividing him from his brother forever; as his mother would certainly see it. Whether this is a sign of Charles’s fundamental irreligiosity or his fundamental Catholicism is unclear.

As Part 2 moves towards its conclusion, we get two very strange choices from screenwriter Adrian Hodges – one of them, indeed, unforgiveable. With the outbreak of the Great Plague, a horrified and sickened Charles is taken through the streets of London by the magistrate Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey (David Bradley). Berry Godfrey is best known as the magistrate who took Titus Oates’ deposition, his “final” version of the events of the Popish Plot – and who was murdered soon afterwards. To many, the murder was proof positive of the truth of Oates’ accusations – while some say it was Oates and his people who had the magistrate murdered for just that reason. When the character of Sir Edmund turned up at this point in the series, I assumed it was to prepare for these later events – but he never appears again. Odd.

The other mystifying plot-thread concerns debate over Charles’s supposed marriage to Lucy Walter and Monmouth’s legitimacy. Barbara has been pushing this bandwagon, as well as trying to convince Charles to divorce Catherine – mostly because of personal emnity, we imagine; while she and Buckingham are both busy poisoning Charles’s mind against Sir Edward Hyde, who has too much influence for their liking. The question of the Test Act has already created a rift between Charles and Sir Edward, and in the wake of the Battle of Medway, Hyde’s enemies see their chance, with Buckingham calling for his impeachment. Buckingham’s outspokenness sees him back in the Tower for a time, but he emerges triumphant. For a time it seems that Hyde’s enemies will bring about his death, but Charles commutes the sentence: the most loyal of his counsellors is instead sent into permanent exile. Here we have the first of a long line of moments in which Charles averts his eyes from a friend, murmuring that someone must take the blame…

Meanwhile, according to the script, it was not Lucy Walter at all who owned a black box containing proof of her marriage to Charles, but Charles himself! Repeatedly, Charles denies his marriage and declares Monmouth illegitimate; but a silent scene has him producing a hidden black box, him taking a paper from it and destroying it…

This is an absolutely bewildering touch – particularly in light of the series’ depiction of Charles’s stance on the succession. Think about it: what he’s doing here is destroying the proof that he has a legitimate Protestant heir: an heir that would have solved all his problems; an heir that would have solved EVERYONE’S problems. The hell – !?

Okay, I guess they just wanted to work the famous black box into it somehow… And they as good as admit the tampering, too: we never actually see what the paper is. And really, perhaps it was just the symbolism of it they were after; because, as Charles drops that mysterious paper into the fire, we cut from those flames to the Great Fire of London…

04/09/2010

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

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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?

21/08/2010

Gunpowder, Treason & Plot (Part 1)

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

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History, as I have already mentioned, is not my strong suit (I was a science/geography girl). So when an historical drama tampers with the facts to such a degree that even I can spot it easily, it’s cause for concern.

Sometimes, of course, there are very good reasons for screenwriters to take historical liberties – particularly when the facts are in dispute and we don’t know for sure what happened anyway: such speculation is understandable and, dramatically speaking, essential. Sometimes, in adapting a true story, it is necessary to compress events just on practical grounds. And then there are the times when history is re-written for no good reason you can think of, which is the case with Gunpowder, Treason & Plot.

It’s hard to know what James McGovern was trying to do here. His extensive alterations suggests he had some particular agenda in mind, but the end product hardly supports this view. The story is built on a simple schema of Catholic vs Protestant. The Protestants are, one and all, depicted as lying, scheming murderers, which might suggest we’re supposed to side with, or at least sympathise with, the Catholics – except that counterbalancing this we have the fact that everything, and I mean everything, the Catholics do fails due to their own stupidity. Possibly we’re just supposed to curl our lips contemptuously at both factions.

For its DVD release, Gunpowder, Treason & Plot has been compressed into two uneven chapters, the first, shorter part dealing with the reign of Mary, Queen of Scots, and the second part with that of her son, James VI of Scotland and I of England, leading up of course to the infamous failed plot of November 1605.

First the good news: this production is very well cast. Kevin McKidd gives us a romantic Bothwell (no wife-abandoning, possible rapist here), devoted to Mary, but ultimately too violently impulsive for his or anyone else’s good. Paul Nicholls as Darnley moves from superficially charming suitor to drunken, abusive husband with frightening conviction; and Catherine McCormack is a rather splendid Elizabeth I, although her appearances are disappointingly brief.

The French actress Clémence Poésy is not at all my idea of Mary, but she gives an interesting performance, although one somewhat hampered by the script’s desire to have Mary all things to all people. Essentially, what James McGovern does is declare Mary guilty of almost everything she’s ever been accused of, while providing her with excuses for her actions. I say “almost” because she is exonerated on the charge of an adulterous affair with her Italian advisor, David Rizzio…but then “wee David” is (rightly or wrongly) coded gay here, presumably by way of explanation of Mary’s failure to transgress.

Gunpowder, Treason & Plot begins with the death of Mary of Guise, and the return of her daughter to Scotland to claim her throne. Curiously, the script ignores the fact that she had been “Mary, Queen of Scots” since the ripe old age of 6 days. It also ignores her first marriage, and her time as Queen Consort of France, partly so that it can show her development/corruption from her beginnings as “a wee girl, a silly young thing”, and partly so that she can be given an horrendous wedding night after her marriage to Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley.

The description of Mary as “a silly young thing” issues from her illegimitate half-brother, James Stewart, here depicted as conspiring against Mary with Elizabeth from the outset, rather than turning against her after her marriage to an Englishman. Mary has already upset both religious factions by declaring her intention of allowing Scotland to remain Protestant, while continuing to practise her own faith, despite violent opposition to this from John Knox and his followers. James stirs the pot still further by goading the young Catholic Sir John Huntly into the murder of another prominent Protestant, Lord Gunn. Mary’s refusal to stay his execution turns the Catholics against her, too.

The Huntly episode is a fabrication. In fact, all the major events of Mary’s reign are jumbled and misordered here. We have Bothwell declaring his love for Mary and being rejected because of his “inferior” position, which is nonsense. There is, nevertheless, an odd attempt to depict Mary and Bothwell as star-crossed lovers,  their desires thwarted by Mary’s determination to bear a son who will be heir to the English throne. This possibility motivates her marriage to Darnley, whose conduct subsequent to the wedding justifies, in script terms, everything else that happens. Darnley soon degenerates into drunken violence, as Bothwell glowers from the sidelines.

James takes the opportunity to arrange, and involve Darnley in, the murder of David Rizzio, attempting to seize power in the wake of it. However, Bothwell manages to smuggle Mary out of the castle. The two of them raise an army, and drive James and his followers from Scotland. Bothwell again declares his feelings for Mary, who returns them, but rejects his advances on the grounds of her pregnancy. Bothwell is sent into a sort of exile after this, during which he works off his feelings by slaughtering the English, and by sending Elizabeth news of Mary’s pregnancy. The little detail of his own marriage, at which Mary was a guest, is never mentioned.

As with many such productions, Gunpowder, Treason & Plot does very well in its interior scenes, but fails in its exteriors due to a paucity of extras. This hurts the story at several points, but never so much as in the scene of “Mary’s army” and “James’s army”, in which there are rarely more than eight people in shot. Besides that, of course, there’s the fact that James had been driven out of Scotland a year before Rizzio’s murder, after leading a failed rebellion in the wake of Mary’s marriage. Darnley did arrange and participate in the murder, at which time Mary – in whose presence it was committed – was already seven months’ pregnant with the future King James.

In this storyline, a temporarily sober Darnley reappears from wherever after the birth of his son, and in his one decent action declares the child legitimate. Anything resembling reconciliation evaporates the next moment, however, as Mary tells Darnley bluntly that it is only for this that she has spared his life.

We get a rare bit of historical accuracy next, as Bothwell is seriously injured (an attempt on his life by James), and Mary rides to his camp to see him. The two become lovers (so much for “seriously injured”), and they continue their not-very-discreet affair after Bothwell’s resummons to Edinburgh. This is the last straw for Darnley, who has returned to his violent, drunken ways. Barred from Mary’s bedroom, one night he breaks in and tries to rape her. It is this that provokes Bothwell to propose his murder, to which Mary does not agree until Darnley threatens the baby – his reasoning being that if the child is dead, Mary will have to return to his bed to conceive another.

We make no bones here about Bothwell’s guilt, which I suppose is fair enough; but the depiction of the murder is fairly ridiculous. Having failed to kill Darnley by blowing him up with gunpowder (Subtle Foreshadowing!), Bothwell tracks him down and strangles him in front of witnesses. Friendly witnesses, but still… After this, it is not Bothwell’s mock-trial, acquittal, divorce and rapid marriage to Mary that turns Scotland against them – bad enough, you might have thought – but the fact that the two of them are openly living together! However, some time into the conflict (there’s never any sense here of the amount of time passed), Mary decides that enough men have died for her, and she turns herself over to the English, where she is imprisoned and her baby, literally torn from her arms, last seen in the ominous grasp of James…

[To be continued…]