Posts Tagged ‘British history’

One of the more impossible things to ask an actor to do is to play someone so well-known that everyone has an in-depth opinion of them already. The world of Bio-Pics are riddled with such traumatic tasks.

Gary Oldman’s recent version of Winston Churchill is widely considered the gold standard, as was Claire Foy’s eerie ability to channel Queen Elizabeth II in Series 1 and 2 of the Crown. Foy has now finished her stint, as the Crown rotates its cast as time moves on in the story. But Britain is now agog at the news that Series Four will include a virtual newcomer as Princess Diana, fated to captivate the world both as an iconic beauty who devoted a goodly proportion of her life to good works, as well as having endured the slow-motion train wreck of her marriage to Prince Charles.

Newcomer Erin Corrin will portray Diana, with whom she certainly bears more than a passing similarity. Whether she (and her script writers) will have the ability to make her portrayal of Diana a veritable “suspend disbelief” tour de force or a mere imitation or impersonation awaits our perusal.

Series 3 of this brilliantly made (so far) series airs in late 2019 — which will see Olivia Colman take over Claire Foy’s role as Queen Elizabeth — and will focus on the Harold Wilson era between 1964-1970. As we who lived through that, we are almost as keen to see what they make of Wilson. Lady Di arrives in the Thatcher era, presumably in 2020.

An interesting parlour game is to consider the best ever Bio Pics of all time, whether on TV or in Cinema. It is certainly a rich ouvre. Here’s our Top Ten (well, as at this moment – given a little more thought we might add others) — what are yours? And why?

  1. Gandhi – an ineffable (and apparently very authentic) central performance from Ben Kingsley and sensational mass-scale direction from Dickie Attenborough combine to create a story which bears repeated viewing. Many times. There’s always something more to see.
  2. Lawrence of Arabia – notable not only for David Lean’s sweeping cinematography but also Peter O’Toole’s mesmerising and complex portrayal of a character who didn’t bear easy translation to any medium, let alone film.
  3. The King’s Speech – notable most of all for its astounding performance by Colin Firth as the stammering King George 6th, the film also evokes its era and the stuffiness of the British court perfectly.
  4. Patton – we are not normally huge fans of war movies, but Patton is really a character portrait which happens to be set in the theatre of war. George C Scott channels the gruff American General with great skill, painting a portrait of a man who was as much a prisoner of his character as he was a man of his time who helped to shorten the war. The movie portrays him as both understood but misunderstood simultaneously, and evokes sympathy.
  5. Bernardo Bertolluci’s portrait of The Last Emperor (of China) is as wonderful for its lavish staging and massive set pieces as it is for John Lone’s deeply sympathetic portrayal of, again, an integrally flawed character caught up in events beyond his ken and abilities.
  6. A Beautiful Mind, which stars Russell Crowe in what must be his best ever performance was also notable for a restrained and remarkable performance from Jennifer Connelly as his long suffering and supportive wife, and also makes the list for shining a sympathetic light on mental illness and how people who are ‘different” can nevertheless be intensely and historically valuable.
  7. The Elephant Man suffers from the criticism that it cannot possibly be historically accurate because of our distance from events, but it was certainly utterly compelling cinema, and John Hurt as the central character turns in a performance so heart wrenching it is an example to all in how to portray suffering with dignity.
  8. La Vie en Rose tells the story of Edith Piaf, warts and all. It makes this list because of the astounding performance of Marion Cotillard as Piaf herself, who is

    Marion Cotillard as Piaf

    so realistic that one is instantly transported to her world and her struggles, and informed by both.

  9. Oliver Stone’s Nixon is another that makes our list because of the central performance of Anthony Hopkins as Nixon. Nixon was the ultimate Shakespearian tragedy in action – a man of prodigious talent destroyed by a refusal to be constrained by the rules and infected by galloping paranoia. Hopkins – who has endured more than a few ups and downs in his life himself – manages to make him both understandable and yet utterly creepy. In this context Stone’s JFK should probably also get an honourable mention, although its reliance on conspiracy theory rather than fact means it doesn’t get its own place on the list.
  10. Michael Collins was a movie that tried to make the awful somehow acceptable, in this case the murderous campaign of the IRA to free Ireland from British subjugation, which is portrayed as both heroic and cruel simultaneously, as well as effectively introducing the history of the period to a wider audience, including the short but bloody Irish Civil War, which can be glossed over in discussions of the years concerned. A very strong cast sees graet performances from Liam Neeson as Collins himself, Aidan Quinn and the much-missed Alan Rickman as the scheming but flawed Eamon de Valera. The only duff note is Julia Roberts as Collins’s lover, or the film would be higher up than 10th.

So that’s our list, Dear Reader. Yours? What did we leave off?

 

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The world is going through convulsions currently about the just-released new movie Mary Queen of Scots, primarily because of the acting skills of the remarkable Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie, both of whom apparently light up the screen, and admiration for the lush staging of the story, both in terms of the gorgeous countryside and the recreation of medieval court life.

You can view the trailer for the movie below:

From Ronan’s powerful screen presence and mastery of a Scots accent to Robbie’s ineffably emotional performance, audiences seem set to love the film. Alex Hudson of Exclaim! wrote, “The real star here isn’t Mary at all, but Elizabeth — brilliantly played by Margot Robbie, who conveys a thin veneer of confidence disguising a deep well of neuroses.”

The danger, though, for all that both leading ladies’ offer masterful performances, is that people will mistake it for history, which it is not.

As Benjamin Lee in the Guardian said:

“Historians have already labelled the film problematic from Mary’s Scottish accent (apparently her real accent was French) to the film’s dramatic in-person confrontation between the two queens (apparently it never happened),” he writes.

But your annoyance with these deviations will depend on how you view the gap between history and historical drama and while there are some embellishments, they’re embellishments that have been added to previous adaptations and the primary facts appear relatively untainted, the truth shocking enough to propel the plot by itself.”

 

It’s an interesting point. Mary and Elizabeth never met, but a personal meeting between the two of them is pivotal to an understanding of the story. Does that really matter? Perhaps not. As one commenter pointed out in the comments for the trailer: “No one is watching this for educational purposes. Nobody’s gonna pay to watch a movie about (people) passive aggressively writing letters. ”

The same is true of one of the best films we have seen in recent years – certainly the finest leading performance – with Bohemian Rhapsody.

The film plays fast and loose with the chronology of events in Freddie Mercury’s life. For example, it appears to criticise Mercury for attempting solo albums, but ignores the fact his fellow Queen members were doing the same. It places the revelation of Mercury’s HIV infection as just before the seminal Live Aid performance, where band members confirm they knew a lot sooner than that.

See the trailer here – and see the film. We cannot recommend Rami Malek’s performance highly enough. It is utterly mesmerising and well deserves to win the Oscar for Best Actor.

 

Other noted movies to depart from strict historicity include recent efforts like Outlaw King (about Robert the Bruce), and the Darkest Hour (with Oscar-winning Gary Oldman as Churchill), and many others that are great movies, not so great history.

Churchill never rode the London Tube, for example, but the scene where he chats amiably to working class travelers is central to understanding his motivation to keep fighting the war with Hitler. Similarly, Churchill is portrayed as a hero for standing up to the defeatism of Chamberlain and Halifax, which he was, but ignores the vital role played by Labour Leader Clem Attlee, who was vital in bolstering support for Churchill.

The interesting question for all movie goers and critics is whether these mild changes to actual historicity really matter much, or whether compiling a compelling story is the higher priority, a story which contains within it deeper truths about the people and events concerned.

It will be interesting, in particular, to see what people make of Mary’s character in this film. Critics have argued that the film has strong feminist overtones, and it has certainly been promoted as such, portraying both Mary and Elizabeth, to a degree, as victims of the patriarchy in their society.

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Mary of Scotland in France

But that would surely be a case of too easily dismissing both women. They were both extremely strong-willed, eloquent, extremely well-educated, frequently sure of their personal direction, often capricious, sexually aggressive, charismatic and very often arrogant. Neither were especially merciful to those who opposed them.

Mary in particular undoubtedly endured bad luck. The early death of her first husband, Francis II of France, very possibly robbed her of a peaceful and contented future. (That she was deeply in love with Francis seems undoubted.) His death, and her subsequent return to Scotland, landed her in the middle of a deeply charged and volatile situation, riven with competing forces and religious tension, for which nothing could have adequately prepared her.

But she didn’t help herself. As history would have it, and with one eye on the English throne, she managed to annoy both her Catholic and her Protestant subjects.

Mary’s real downfall – which is often portrayed as due to her scheming (history being written by the victors, in this case Elizabeth’s advisor William Cecil) – was her obvious claim to be the rightful successor to Elizabeth, and as such her inevitable role as the lodestar of hope for English Catholics still smarting after the death of Mary Tudor and the accession of the protestant Elizabeth.

Even though Elizabeth would not name Mary as her heir – fearing being supplanted by her if her legitimacy was too strongly endorsed – she assured the Scottish envoy Maitland that she knew no one with a better claim than Mary. It is questionable, at least, whether Mary could ever have escaped her fate once landed in Scotland. She was simply too important – or too dangerous – for too many people.

What is certain, though, is that Mary’s own choice of male partners was largely the single most obvious factor in her undoing.

Mary made a fatal error in falling in love with and marrying Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, which infuriated Elizabeth who felt the marriage should not have gone ahead without her permission, as Darnley was both her cousin and an English subject.

Elizabeth felt especially threatened by the marriage, because as descendants of her aunt, both Mary and Darnley were claimants to the English throne and their children, if any, would inherit an even stronger, combined claim. In being ruled by her heart rather than her head Mary shows herself as much less circumspect than her cousin, who more than once put away from her men she clearly loved, but who were not suitable as husbands.

The marriage to Darnley, another Catholic, also prompted a Protestant rebellion. Thereafter Darnley’s dubious character and cack-handed meddling in politics led directly to Mary fleeing Scotland and her eventual death.

Similarly, her subsequent dalliance with and marriage to Lord Bothwell was also a disaster. Far from pacifying the Protestants, the marriage shocked Protestants and Catholics alike, with many people believing Mary had conspired with Bothwell to murder Darnley. Whether or not this was actually the case has intrigued historians, who do not agree on her guilt. What is certain is that Mary badly miscalculated the effect of her relationship with Bothwell on her long-term survival as Queen of Scots.

Elizabeth proved by far the more wily of the two Queens.

For many years, with Mary captive in England, she balanced what seems to have been genuine concern for Mary’s well-being with a desire to see her either restored to the Scots throne within a Protestant state, or simply to neuter her threat. But whatever she did, the Catholics of England – encouraged and abetted by Mary herself – simply wouldn’t settle down. Rebellions in her favour in the North of England, the Ridolfi plot, a plan to marry her to the Spaniard Don John of Austria who would then invade England from the Netherlands, (that one was directly down to the then Pope), the Throckmorton Plot, the William Parry plot and finally the Babington plot made it clear that Mary was actively plotting to replace Elizabeth, and her assassination. Indeed, it could be argued that with evidence repeatedly piling up Elizabeth was remarkably patient with her wayward cousin.

Mary’s eventual execution was inevitable. It was required to secure the realm.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that she does not deserve our sympathy, and her courage at her execution undoubtedly plays into the sympathetic view of her held by many people.

It is interesting to speculate what might have happened had she ever become Queen of England. When her son by Darnley, James I of England, succeeded Elizabeth, he came down hard on the English Catholics in a way that Mary probably would not have. James’s severity kept a lid on the ever-bubbling cauldron of religious strife in the country for 22 years, and it is arguable that Mary would not have been as successful, and may even have returned to the violent religiosity of her namesake, “Bloody” Mary Tudor.

But James’s son, Charles, who seems to have shared many emotional characteristics with his grandmother, clearly failed to manage the fault lines in English society, and he, too, paid with his head.

Nothing in Britain would ever be the same again. And the much-mooted union of Scotland and England would not actually occur until 1707.