“Mary Queen of Scots” (2018)

Drama

Running Time: 125 minutes

Written by: Beau Willimon

Directed by: Josie Rourke

Featuring: Margot Robbie, Saoirse Ronan, Jack Lowden, Joe Alwyn, David Tennant and Guy Pearce

John Knox: “We have a scourge upon our land. Tis a woman with a crown.”

Released this week on DVD and Blu-ray is what could have been a major highlight in film from last year (as well as an awards contender) in the historical drama “Mary Queen of Scots” (2018) that brings to the screen the epic rivalry between Queen Elizabeth I and the titular, Mary Queen of Scots that while at times a riveting show piece that sees two formidable women outdoing each other in machinations that rival anything in history, ultimately it either brushes over major periods of time, creates history where there was none or feels small in its direction, never really living up to its hype or potential, especially with two actresses that have really come into their own over the past few years in Margot Robbie and Saoirse Ronan.  This should have been a film for the ages with young actresses giving weighty performances of real woman in a post #meto environment, instead it feels lightweight as well as post modern in the worst way possible.

When it comes to movies (and television shows) based around the English monarchy there is surely no shortage at all, in fact they are so prolific as to almost be a genre unto themselves. What this means for this movie as well as any other similarly themed movie is that for them to gain traction, be noticed, relevant as well as successful they have to either say something new, reveal something unknown about characters or look and feel unique. It is unfortunate then that while this movie was filmed in some spectacular locations, has two very good leads as well as at times a fantastic supporting cast it comes off as very ordinary, indeed mundane which for a film that contains as much intrigue as this one does against an amazing backdrop is unforgivable. At the time this was set there were many people vying for power, attempting to wrest control in their own ways throughout the Empire of which we see very little in real terms.

The main issues, for me, arise from the writing as well as direction which may seem obvious but a movie that contains this much history needed to be led by someone who not only had an understanding of the plot, but could also rope in the narrative so that it became a compelling, almost thriller like story, in fact if anything the sheer breadth of the narrative meant that a longer form medium was possibly the better way to go, instead of a two hour film. Directed by Josie Rourke in her debut really has no scope to frame what is occurring between the two women in power, in fact the entire framing visually is tight and restricted, when you have the immense power of the Scottish landscape as well as the growing city of London but never see them in all their glory, this is a crime that is unforgivable. We see two women vying for power but over what and whom, Elizabeth I said she was married to her people, but where are they? It is also unfortunate that in many scenes characters are all exposition with little action, it can be easy for a first-time director to rely on actors to tell the story but sometimes the camera has to tell the story as well. With a script by Beau Willimon it is no wonder that this film plays like a short version of televisions “House of Cards” (2013-2018) as he was the head writer on that once great series. Of course, the issue with that show was the ending as well as the fact that everything that was going on was absolutely fully explained to the audience, two elements it has in common with “Mary Queen of Scots”. Finally, the last, and most successful, element to address is the cinematography by the great John Mathieson who has worked on some of the greatest modern films of all time. What Mathieson brings to “Mary Queen of Scots” is some sense of history as well as cinematic experience, he knows how to frame shots as well as putting sequences together, he can assist the director in terms of composition, light and what looks good, of course that is where it stops as everything else is up to the director where there is a definite deficiency. 

The main plot is set in the 1500s, nineteen-year-old Mary, Catholic Queen of Scotland, returns to her home country from France following the death of her husband, Francis II of France, to take up her throne, where she is received by her half brother, the Earl of Moray. In neighbouring England, her cousin, twenty-eight-year-old Elizabeth is Protestant Queen of England — unmarried, childless, and threatened by Mary’s potential claim to her throne.

While “Mary Queen of Scots” is billed with two lead actresses there is no doubt at all that Saoirse Ronan, as the titular character is the lead and is ably supported by Margot Robbie as Elizabeth I. Over the past few years Ronan has proved herself an incredibly able actress able to play a variety of different characters, she has enough Oscar nominations to prove how brilliant and accepted she is. The other aspect of Ronan is her fearlessness in not shying away from difficult parts, she seems to relish playing a wide range of characters that all at some point have their own agency. Here she plays a confident Queen who is finding her way in a foreign land contending with duplicitous men as well as a rival that is in many ways superior to her. Margot Robbie as Ronan’s co-star has the role that is a little splashy, more well-known and she is able to dip in and out of the narrative making an impact but no real requirement to do the heavy lifting. This is where the performances are limited as there is a need to bring both Mary and Elizabeth together to have them spar with each other which happens once but after they meet it is all downhill from there. The support cast is fantastic with my personal favourite David Tennant showing why he is such an adept actor but he was not in it enough to bridge the gap between Ronan and Robbie.

There is a need when audiences view a film based around real people or events that the subject being portrayed is authentic or at least as authentic as possible. What the movie going public has been educated on is that sometimes events play out differently in a narrative film as opposed to real life or even a documentary. The reasons for differences or variations in a good film normally revolves around structuring not only a cohesive narrative, something people are able to follow, or even to alter the time it takes for action to unfold. In some cases characters will become one fictional person so that it is easier to get from one point to another or conversation will take place to expediate the story, sometimes it is even done to create tension. Of course “Mary Queen of Scots” has a few factual errors which do not detract in terms of their errors, except one, which is a big one, even for a movie, especially when the trailers lead audiences to believe it really happened, that is the meeting between Elizabeth and Mary which never happened, to my mind this is unforgivable as well as a testament to the idea that this is a movie that needed to be helmed by someone with some more experience.

Ultimately this is an enjoyable movie, however it does have pretentions of being of a higher quality than it actually is. This is a middle of the road historical drama that has excellent actors as well as a compelling story which does get a little lost in the mix coming off as a melodrama that never scales the heights it wants to. If you can catch it on a streaming service or rent it you will be pleasantly surprised but it is a one watch only.

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