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Mary Queen of Scots

According to Wikipedia, there have been no less than eight (8) movies either directly or indirectly about the life and times of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots. And the first one was all the way back in goddamn 1895! And of course, that’s not counting all the books, the stage plays, the TV adaptations… it’s been DONE.

But so far as I’m aware, this is the first time the story has ever been directed by a woman (namely Josie Rourke, here making her film debut after an impressive career in London theatre). As women continue to find more of a foothold in Hollywood and in politics, this could make a world of difference, and it could be a story we need to revisit right now. So here we are with Mary Queen of Scots, in which the titular Scottish character and her perennial British rival are respectively played by the Irish Saorise Ronan and Australian Margot Robbie.

Right off the bat, the movie benefits greatly for being directed by a woman. There’s a distinct lack of male gaze, which makes a subtle yet significant difference when Mary is relaxing with her handmaidens, trying to conceive an heir, giving birth, etc. And of course it makes an appreciable difference when we’re seeing Mary and Elizabeth try and outmaneuver all the ambitious and envious politicians surrounding them.

Alas, the direction here is otherwise flat. We only get one battle scene, and it’s incoherent. A man gets stabbed to death, and it doesn’t register on any kind of visceral level. There’s all this talk about succession and marriage and the Catholics/Protestants feud, and none of it congeals into anything engaging. I have no idea how Beau Willimon — he who created the great American political saga “House of Cards” — could have crafted such a multilayered tale of political intrigue that comes off as so petty and boring.

Of course the filmmakers try and make the story more timely, mostly by way of telling a story about two female regents who are vastly more capable of leading than the men aspiring to the throne. And of course we also get a fair bit of slut-shaming, mob mentality, spreading fear and hatred through scandalous lies and overblown rhetoric, etc. Trouble is, most of this is expressed through David Tennant’s character, playing to the cheap seats as he struggles to act through the giant mass of fake hair on his face.

There’s something missing here, and it took me the longest time to figure out what it was. Then the climax happened, and it became abundantly clear.

To be entirely fair, there is no historical evidence that Mary and Elizabeth ever actually met. Even in the movie itself, the characters are perfectly clear in stating why nobody could ever know that the two of them had ever been in the same room together. And it’s such a damn shame the filmmakers had to work with that limitation.

Mary is younger and more impulsive, but she’s capable of breeding an heir. Elizabeth is older and more experienced, beyond all hope of birthing a child. There’s also the fact that Mary is still effortlessly beautiful while Elizabeth was disfigured by smallpox. Yet the two of them have to consistently fight around the clock to defend their throne against short-sighted and small-minded men. Hell, quite often, they have to defend their own power against each other. Yet in spite of all their differences, nobody else in the world could ever understand the suffering of these two queens, except each other.

These two are easily the most compelling characters in the entire movie, and they’re played by the two strongest actors in the entire cast. Guy Pearce is utterly wasted, Jack Lowden has some pretty good chemistry with Ronan before he abruptly turns heel, Ismael Cruz Cordova plays a wonderful jester before he gets unceremoniously jettisoned from the movie, and I couldn’t even tell two other actors apart from each other. Mary and Elizabeth spend pretty much the entire movie surrounded by interchangeable dullards and drunkards. Only when the two of them are finally in a room together does it finally become obvious that everyone else in the cast was dragging these two women down, and weighing down the entire film in the process.

(Side note: The movie conveniently forgets to mention that Mary and her husband Lord Darnley — that’s Lowden’s character — were first cousins. Oh, those crazy royal families and their inbreeding.)

What makes it even worse is that Mary’s imprisonment in England is completely hand-waved away. The incident of the casket letters and the alleged plots against Elizabeth’s life take place entirely offscreen. It really pisses me off that with Mary imprisoned in England, it would have been so much easier to play with historical record and contrive ways to put Mary and Elizabeth in more direct contact. Seriously, why the hell didn’t they make the whole movie about this, or at least make it the crux of the entire third act?!

More importantly, we’re talking about Mary’s execution here. For obvious reasons, it’s a hugely important event in the story. And the events leading up to that moment, the reasons why Elizabeth literally signed her death warrant, are completely unexamined. The movie opens with Mary’s execution, and ends with Mary’s execution, and in between is two solid hours of hand-wringing about who Mary will take for a husband and how she can be deposed, with barely a word spoken about why she got executed. That has to be a dealbreaker.

What’s even worse for this film is that it’s coming out in direct competition with The Favourite, another female-led period drama about British royalty (though the two films are set about 150 years apart from each other). It only makes The Favourite looks better. Next to the innovative camerawork of The Favourite, this movie looks made-for-TV quality. Next to the spirited performances and memorable characters of The Favourite, every character in this movie looks bland and lifeless. Seriously, the guy who wrote The Lobster made a more coherent and exciting political drama than the guy who wrote “House of Cards” — how the fuck did that happen?!

Mary Queen of Scots has two wonderful lead actresses and virtually no idea of what to do with them. The production design is solid, but the newbie director doesn’t know how to shoot it effectively. The presentation is stiff, the plot is unfocused, and I could barely bring myself to give a damn about anything going on.

There is so much wasted potential here, and there’s little reason to bother with this movie when so many others have been made about this subject. In point of fact, there’s no reason to bother with cut-and-dried period dramas when the genre has been done to death. Not recommended.

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