If ours is not a great age of Tudor, Elizabethan, Protectorate, Restoration, Hanoverian, and ongoing Windsorite dramas on big and small screens alike, it is certainly an abundant one. The sun never sets over this British Empire, streamed by Netflix and the lesser world entertainment powers through ever time of day and every time zone.
As for the big dark of the not-yet-vanquished movie theatre, it is precisely when night falls that certain parts of the Empire glower most fiercely in the firelight and guttering candles; lurk most malevolently in the mist and rain; clash most clangorously on darkened moor and along sepulchral loch. I refer of course, to the epic, Mary Queen of Scots, that sprawls across the second half of the sixteenth century, beginning and ending with the beheading of the title character in 1587; and its current competition—and unlikely companion (seen one, why not see the other?)—for box office lucre, the antechamber/bedchamber frolic The Favourite set in the waning months Queen Anne’s life and reign that concluded with the childless monarch’s death in 1714.
When on-screen lights—that is to say, tapers and torches—are low it is music that that speaks most powerfully, if often obscurely (fittingly so) from the shadows. The music tells us what the story and its characters are up to, even if it doesn’t exactly shine the light of reason on their machinations.
The soundtracks of both films are diverse, one might even somewhat ironically say catholic in taste: both stage period music that is heard within the world of the film, but also import updates of various vintages to frame the action. This commentary is beyond the hearing of the on-screen characters. Mary Queen of Scots brings these two forces—the so-called diegetic and non-diegetic—into ponderous juxtaposition. The soundtrack of The Favourite, by contrast, embraces the bizarre in its dialogue between the appropriate and the outlandish.
This Queen Mary is a voice for female empowerment. She quarrels and commiserates—long distance until a final, fateful face-to-face— with her cousin, Queen Elizabeth, who, instead of pursuing brazen and ultimately fatal independence from male influence, plays the victim of her own political power, a force that she claims has, for all intents and purposes, turned her into a man. The script is from Beau Willimon, the creator of the American House of Cards. As that show’s creator Willimon proved himself adept not only at transplanting British shenanigans to the fertile lands across the sea, but also at sanctioning—or at least showing—many politico-sexual practices traditionally banned by television morality. Chief among these was presenting to the public a bisexual president, who, in the off-screen person of Kevin Spacey was overtaken by scandals his character had evaded in the show. At the apex of the series’ success the actor was swept from the throne of celebrity and into the Tower of public humiliation. Reality and fiction are increasingly dubious distinctions, from Netflix to CNN to Fox News and beyond. Machiavelli’s Wheel of Fortune is blind to ratings.
In Mary Queen of Scots, Willimon exercises his skill in cultural transformation by playing fast and loose with a key figure in the geo-political drama. The person in question is a musician, David Riccio, an Italian lutenist who had come to the Scottish court in 1561 and soon ingratiated himself with the Queen. He lasted five years before a plot ended his life.
Mary was wont to have herself serenaded with chansons and madrigals by three of her ladies-in-waiting. Rizzio was enlisted to sing bass in this girl group and soon became one of the queen’s favorites, a role that in turn elicited much palace jealously. In Willimon’s fantasy Rizzio sings solo, and rather than join the women in song, he dresses up in in their clothes, dances, pets, and preens. His adopted queen is no fiery upholder of Catholic doctrines of hate, however. Rather than burn Rizzio at the stake, this Mary wants him “to be what he wants to be.”
We catch chiaroscuro glimpses of Rizzio, who doesn’t say much, making music—singing or playing a lightly varnished violin with an antique convex bow. These appear to be modelled on the instrument he holds in a contemporary portrait of him now in the Royal Collection in Edinburgh. The music Rizzio plays is also of the period: stately dances enlivened by flourishes that suggest forbidden desire and malevolent designs.
Rizzio was an important figure in the early British histories of music: Charles Burney, author of the first of these encyclopedic studies, even claimed to have found local informants with knowledge about Rizzio in the doomed man’s native Piedmont when the historian visited the region two centuries after the musician’s vicious murder at the hands of Scottish courtiers. Rizzio was of interest to Burney and other English music historians of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries because he was purported to have composed many beloved Scottish melodies: when it came to Scotch airs and reels, this Italian was more Scottish than the Scots. Needless to say, British historians were keen to debunk foreign influence and instead reclaim Scottish music as pristinely indigenous and older than historical memory itself.
In Mary Queen of Scots Rizzio’s music provides a patina of authenticity to his cross-dressing—and to an even more outlandish plot point: the musician beds Mary’s husband, the Scottish nobleman Lord Darnly, on the pair’s wedding night. In the film, the viciousness of Rizzio’s murderers can in this way fired by homophobia even more than by political maneuvering against a Catholic agitator. Music makes the anachronistic message of tolerance go down.
The larger political sweep of the picture is urged on by Hans Richter’s original minimalist score. Like so many other creators of royalist film music, Richter is sucked into the musical Black Hole that is Handel—that most regal and sublime of British Royal Composers, and like Richter a German émigré (though Richter came to England at a much younger age and was raised there). Richter’s original score for Mary refashions Handel’s 1727 coronation anthem for George II, Zadok the Priest. Richter dispenses with the mighty choral outbursts and occupies himself with teetertottering arpeggios of the upper parts. These oscillate energetically above a circulating bass-line, known in the eighteenth-century as the Mannheim cadence, and familiar from the closing gestures of countless classical sonatas and symphonies, among them Mozart’s Jupiter. This same bass figure was later drafted to serve as the underpinning of doo-wop. As the mainstay of the Mary soundtrack it unwittingly mirrors the repetitive cycles of the plot.
In contrast to the intimate Elizabethan strains heard within the film, these incessant loops try to impress on us the gravity of Mary’s situation and the fate of nations in the balance. Richter strives for the sublime but never escapes his own minimalist echo chamber. Instead of armies on the march the score more often evokes swarms of the infamous Highland midges: frantically busy but going nowhere. Rather than spurred to glorious tragedy by these sonorities, the plot lumbers on in spite of Richter’s efforts. The musical patchwork of period detail and modern updating of a Handelian classic yield a well-intentioned, but tiresome hodgepodge.
Vault ahead 150 years to the foppish fashions of Queen Anne and her court. Not a beard is to be seen. Powdered wigs are in. Instead of one man (Rizzio) wearing makeup, now they all do. Is this punctilious verisimilitude or sumptuous exaggeration? One soon realizes it is the latter.
This is a movie that doesn’t take itself too seriously, and especially not when feigning portentousness. Whereas the diegetic music of Mary tries to shore up our belief in the story’s historicism, unpredictable Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos often has his soundtrack for The Favourite mock his characters and muddy their motives: are they scheming, scared, nobly intentioned or just plain out for themselves? The soundtrack would have us believe it’s almost always the last—and the soundtrack is almost always right.
Rather than the chronologically correct lutes, viols and recordings heard by Mary and her Scots, Lanthimos goes for disjunction. The Vivaldi heard at the outset is just about in the ballpark of historical accuracy, but its performance on thundering modern instruments already gives the game away. Soon enough courtiers, and a maid who is keen to become one, are tip-topping in high heels down long dimly hallways to the tune of thunderous organ music ranging from frightening Bach to mystical Messiaen, piped into Hampton Court as if from the moon. There are spooky drones (musical ones, I mean) that are paradoxically and unsettlingly intermittent; these tones and silences lead the way haltingly to the queen’s bed for lesbian encounters and other debaucheries—none of them ratified by royal moralizing as Willimon likes to do up north. When a group of young musicians-in-training launches a period-appropriate concert in the courtyard the children and their master are shouted down viciously by Anne from the gallery above. This outburst reveals that the queen grieves for her seventeen dead children. She takes this undying sorrow out on the musical kids, but also on their audacity to play something the real sovereign might actually have heard as performed on the proper period instruments.
Snatches of string quartets by Beethoven and Shostakovich blow us farther off musical course. There are even some pensive Hans Richter piano arabesques that sneak in as if from the other film, but now cleansed of sublime monarchic pretensions.
Both movies have dance scenes. In Mary Queen of Scots legitimate renaissance music accompany believable steps. The minuet in The Favourite—featuring young officer played by Joe Alwyn, who happens to appear in Mary as Robert Dudley, the ardent admirer of Queen Elizabeth—is an outrageous send-up of court ritual: one of robotic moves, ungainly contortions and awkward gymnastic poises. Once again, the music for this symbolist spoof devised by the avantgarde Berlin choreographer Constanza Macras is delightfully wrong for early eighteenth century. As if intent on decorating this bizarre confection with its droppings, Elton John’s “Skyline Pigeon” flaps over the end credits.
In contrast to the try-hard soundtrack of Mary Queen of Scots, that of The Favourite stokes the film’s irreverent whimsy, making for a visual and sonic banquet in which sadness, one realizes only late in the feast, is the palate cleanser.
(David Yearsley is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)