NB - in the infinite wisdom, Amazon have bundled together all the reviews of various versions of this film together irrespective of differences. If you're looking at this review on the page for the single-film PAL release of Mary, Queen of Scots, please bear in mind that the first part of this review applies to the US NTSC version only.
Anne of the Thousand Days is an enjoyably lavish entertainment from the days when duelling kings and commoners were all the rage at the box-office - Beckett, A Man For All Seasons, The Lion in Winter - before Cromwell and Mary Queen of Scots all but killed off the genre. As history, its better at the general details than the specifics, but it's magnificently staged and not without some dry wit and humour ("We used the incest excuse last time. We can't make a habit of it."), most of it intentional - there's not a writer alive who wouldn't be aware of the effect that giving Richard Burton dialog like "Divorce is like killing - after the first time it's easy" would have on an audience. There's even some pathos in the final image of Henry callously riding off to his next bride as his last one's blood stains the hay on the executioner's scaffold. Burton is on good form before he lurched into drunken autopilot mode, and Genevieve Bujold does well as the alternately innocent and vindictive Anne Boleyn. Even the usually arch and hammy John Colicos is fine as the overambitious Thomas Cromwell, but it's the eternally undervalued Anthony Quayle who steals the acting honors as Cardinal Wolsey, even making you feel for the old monster as he falls from favor.
The only extra is a brief teaser trailer.
Mary, Queen of Scots was critically reviled when it opened - possibly because audiences had overdosed on period epics with downbeat endings by the early seventies, but just as likely because it lacks enough of a central performance to carry the picture. Vanessa Redgrave has always been an extremely mechanical screen actress, to put it mildly, and looking at her screen work it's hard to understand how she ever got a reputation as a great actress. With her vocal inflection veering up and down like an Innsbruck ski jump before travelling north, south, east, west and all points of the compass inbetween in the space of a single line and her movements occasionally awkward, she rarely seems in command of her performance, let alone possessing either the grace or the star quality the part demands. While never as bad here as in Camelot or The Charge of the Light Brigade, she does have a couple of spectacularly awful moments - most notably the would-be dramatic scene when she seizes real power from her half-brother for the first time - where her amateur dramatics make Keira Knightley at her worst look good by comparison. Yet between them Charles Jarrott's direction and John Hale's script for the most part manage to use her weaknesses in the film's favor, offering an impulsive, none-too-bright "pampered woman demanding that all indulge her" who is never the equal of any of the challenges she faces as she wildly rushes to her own destruction, easily outwitted and outmatched at every turn by Glenda Jackson's rather splendid Elizabeth I, who commands her every scene and effortlessly walks away with the movie.
The script itself is problematic. Although it writes its way around the film's most glaring historical error, Mary and Elizabeth meeting not once but twice (secret meetings, you see), it's never good enough to avoid the feeling that it's winding down like a clockwork toy en route to a dreary last 15 minutes where everyone seems to lose interest: even Mary's yearning for martyrdom seems motivated by a tired desire for the whole thing to be over and done with so they can all go home. For a life steeped in blood and violence, few scenes are particularly memorable or vivid despite a couple of assassinations (Ian Holm unfortunately turning the murder of David Riccio into an unintended moment of high camp), numerous (offscreen) revolts, an execution and openly bisexual and syphilitic characters. There's also no sense of how disastrous her troubled reign was for Scotland, the drama seen purely through the eyes of Mary, Elizabeth and various plotting nobles, the people themselves glimpsed only briefly as extras in a mere couple of scenes, giving it a slight feel of historical soap opera.
At one point this was an Alexander MacKendrick project with a much darker vision - he wanted to cast Jeanne Moreau as a French-speaking queen surrounded by Scottish gangsters running the country like a protection racket, with squalid, violent, muddy battle scenes that would make Chimes at Midnight look like whitewashed Hollywood glamour - before producer Hal Wallis decided the best way to have another Anne of the Thousand Days-scale hit was to hire that film's director instead and throw the battles and the history book out the window. The result is a romantic spectacle that relies on star power and screen chemistry that the film doesn't really possess. None of her three leading men strike any sparks with Redgrave - understandable in the case of Timothy Dalton's weak and eternally treacherous Darnley but much more of a problem with Nigel Davenport's Bothwell, fine with the brash stuff but lacking fire or much interest in the love scenes. But then, few of the cast seem particularly enthused by their roles, Patrick McGoohan and Trevor Howard standing out from the crowd of adequate performers without being particularly outstanding.
Aside from Jackson's star turn, the film's real triumph is John Barry's beautiful Oscar-nominated score, helpfully given an isolated score track on the DVD (the only other extras are the trailer - wrongly listed on the packaging as a 'promotional featurette' - and a six-minute trailer for Elizabeth: The Golden Age). It's watchable enough but it's hard to shake the feeling that once they'd spent the money on the cast, costumes and locations there wasn't much left for anything else.