Queens are everywhere these days in entertainment. From the traditional (The Crown) to the hyperbolic (The Favourite), stories about royals are hot. The #MeToo movement can take some credit for newfound interest in ancient tales of yore, but the truth is period films about royalty are always popular. Mary (no comma) Queen of Scots is the latest example and it tells the story of not one, but two queens — cousins Elizabeth the First of England and Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland. The sentiment proves too much to handle, however, as the 124-minute film needs mini-series length to fill in all the gaps.
Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan) has been played before onscreen, famously by Katherine Hepburn, and not so famously by others. Ditto for Elizabeth (Margot Robbie), but of course we’re all familiar with her by now. Mary Queen of Scots reveals the well-worn story of their royal rivalry, England against Scotland, Protestant against Catholic, family against family, but director Josie Rourke isn’t interested in another tale of women destroying each other over power. Instead, her film, based on a screenplay by Beau Willimon, places the blame for Mary’s troubles on patriarchal politics. It’s a movie about queens navigating a man’s world and it is a tragedy.
Another royal film this year, The Favourite, is also interested in the role of powerful women within a patriarchy. Like that film, Mary Queen of Scots portrays its female characters as perpetual prisoners within a system far beyond their control. Their choices are very largely not choices, but inevitabilities destined for reality whether they like it or not. How does a woman, even a queen, survive in a place like this? Both The Favourite and Mary Queen of Scots wonder aloud.
The character of Mary Stuart is one right for the times. She was a feminist before the term existed, a formidable presence who threatened the powerful men around her and lost her head for it. “I’m going to live my own life!” Hepburn declared in 1936’s Mary of Scotland. So she is again in 2018, although, she’s considerably toned-down by Ronan. Her Mary is a hopeful thing who wants to forge a friendship with her first cousin Queen of England, Elizabeth I. The two even have a brief meeting in the film so the audience has hope for the future, but alas, this never happened in real life. And we know the future. Men are very much still in control.
It’s that kind of misplaced optimism that should tank Mary Queen of Scots, but Rourke uses it well, and her movie needs it. Willimon’s screenplay is overwhelmed by politics and it holds little rhythm. His scripts are always ambitious, however, and this one is no exception. If anything it’s too ambitious and may have confused the editors. Scenes are cut together awkwardly and it feels like others are missing. I’m guessing the first cut was much longer.
Luckily, Mary Queen of Scots thrives on its performances. A fantastic ensemble, led by Ronan, Robbie, David Tennant, Joe Alwyn, and Guy Pearce as Elizabeth’s advisor William Cecil keep things cinematic when they could’ve easily become Showtime. (I had a couple flashbacks to The Tudors.) The period production and costume design all work well enough, but they’re not given much time to shine. (Aside from Robbie’s ghostly caked-on makeup and orange hair.) Rourke’s direction is straightforward with little time to savor the extravagances like Scorsese does in The Age of Innocence, for example. Mary Queen of Scots feels rushed, above all, and it jeopardizes the material.
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