Sunday, November 25, 2007

ANNE OF THE THOUSAND DAYS/MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS (Universal 1969/71) Universal Home Video

Based on Maxwell Anderson’s magnificent stage spectacle, Charles Jarrott’s Anne of the Thousand Days (1969) is a visceral and compelling Tudor melodrama about King Henry VIII’s mad obsession to produce the next heir of England. Deriving its name from the brief span in which Anne Boleyn became Queen of England – then lost her head - the play debuted on Broadway in 1948 with no less a formidable Henry than actor Rex Harrison. Running 288 performances to rave reviews, the filmic adaptation had to be postponed repeatedly until Hollywood’s self imposed code of ethics had sufficiently lapsed, allowing the movie to explore those more seedy sidelines of royal intrigue, incest and adultery.

The film opens on the twilight of Henry’s marriage to Queen Katharine of Aragon (Irene Papas). Originally an affair of state, the marriage was thrust upon Henry (Richard Burton) by his father to secure an alliance between England and Spain. However, Katharine has been unable to bear Henry a son. At court, Henry eyes the young maiden, Anne Boleyn (Genevieve Bujold). But his dalliances with Anne’s older sister, Mary (Valerie Gearon) have toughened her resolve. Apart from her obvious disdain for a man who would impregnate one woman while still married to another, Anne is in love with Lord Percy (Terrence Wilton).

But their love match is thwarted when Henry denies his blessing, and furthermore uses his influence to command Cardinal Wolsey (Anthony Quayle) to separate Anne and Percy so that he may pursue her instead. Eventually, Anne agrees to marry the King, though not without conflict. She does indeed give birth to the King’s future heir – Elizabeth; a bitter pill for Henry to swallow and made even more rancid when their second child – a son – is stillborn.

Producer Hal B. Wallis delivers a formidable – if lengthy – filmic feast. By far, Burton’s Henry is the most flawed and human of all movie incarnations, revealing a fallible and tragic side. He is superb, but the acting kudos on this occasion belong squarely to Genevieve Bujold who delivers a wholly captivating performance as the woman who would dominate and change the future course of England’s history.

Mary, Queen of Scots (1971) charts the rise of Mary Stuart; the last Roman Catholic ruler of Scotland. The only legitimate child of James V, Mary becomes the wife of the dauphin Francis (Richard Denning) who dies tragically in a riding accident. Encouraged to return to her native Scotland as the undisputed monarch, Mary is denied passport through England by Elizabeth (Glenda Jackson). Elizabeth further orders Mary's sailing vessel observed.

Despite seemingly insurmountable odds, including a minor revolution and constant threats of death, Mary manages to maintain her faith while attempting to unite her country and restore it to prosperity. She is hampered in her efforts on all fronts by a growing roster of false friends, as well as her own utterly bad judge in choosing male advisers. To this end, Mary falls madly and marries Lord Henry Darnley (Timothy Dalton), the great-grandson of England’s Henry VII.

But her marriage is hardly ideal, especially as Darnley’s jealousy mounts against David Rizzio (Ian Holm); her trusted foreign correspondent. Eventually, Darnley makes a prisoner of his wife, who manages to escape a fate worse than death, only to be thrust into an even more abusive relationship with James Hepburn; the Earl of Bothwell (Nigel Davenport).

Once again, producer Hal. B. Wallis and director Charles Jarrott recant us with tales of palace espionage. However, even at its lengthy running time, and with so much intrigue to contend with, the film seems pressed for time. The sets and costumes are first rate – but the acting is secondary to both. Redgrave is an ample Mary, as is Jackson’s turn as Elizabeth. Their confrontations are the best and most enduring aspect about the film. For the rest, this is a mostly glossy and not very compelling melodrama that truncates history and speeds through pivotal events that really deserve more of our time and attention.

Universal Home Video has made a 2-disc collector’s set of both movies. Image quality on each transfer is uniform for the most part – save one discrepancy on Anne of the Thousand Days to be discussed in a moment.

On both transfers color fidelity has been nicely preserved. Colors are rich and vibrant. Flesh tones have a very natural appearance. There is a good amount of fine detail available for a generally smooth and pleasing presentation throughout. Contrast levels seem bang on with deep blacks and clean whites. Occasionally, age related artifacts are present, but do not distract. The audio on both is 5.1 Dolby Digital and well represented with a very aggressive spread during music and effects. Dialogue is very natural sounding.

Now, for the discrepancy: on Anne of a Thousand Days there are several brief sequences in which the image jerks horizontally. During these moments, the image is highly unstable and riddled with an excessive amount of edge enhancement and shimmering of fine details. The ‘jerking’ motion is probably due to sprocket hole damage inherent in the original camera negative. But the digital artifacts are entirely unacceptable and quite distracting. Overall, then, this DVD is a worthwhile purchase for its content – not its presentation.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
Anne of the Thousand Days - 4
Mary Queen of Scots - 3.5

Anne of the Thousand Days - 3
Mary Queen of Scots - 3.5


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