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A Film That Loses Its Head

Saoirse Ronan
Saoirse Ronan
Focus Features
 124 Minutes
Directed by: Josie Rourke
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Margot Robbie   
Mary Queen of Scots

Beau Willmon, the creator of the American version of Game of Cards, knows a thing or two about how to portray power politics struggles onscreen. Looking at his screenplay for the new historical drama, Mary Queen of Scots, it’s easy to see Willmon’s touch. The movie depicts Mary (Saoirse Ronan) and her cousin, Elizabeth I of England (Margot Robbie) as a pair of Claire Underwoods fighting to retain their power against a host of Frank Underwood-type nobles more than eager in many cases to throw them under the bus. It’s an intriguing concept, but, unfortunately, one that turns into a considerably less intriguing movie.


For those on this side of the Atlantic Ocean, Elizabeth is just the queen who ruled while Shakespeare was around, while Mary was some woman who lost her head, quite literally. In actuality, the two were cousins and rulers of England and Scotland, which were at that time separate and occasionally warring countries. Mary had become Queen of Scotland as an infant and married the king of France as a teenager, only to be widowed shortly afterward. Mary returned to Scotland in the eyes of many the legitimate ruler of England as well.


The conflict between Mary and Elizabeth was primarily based on religion. When Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII, wanted an annulment of his first marriage so he could marry Anne Boleyn (Elizabeth’s mother), the Catholic Church objected, and Henry responded by empowering the Church of England, which quickly allowed Henry to remarry. Years later, when Henry’s daughter ascended the English throne amidst some controversy, the Catholic Mary was supported by much of the Catholic nobility in Scotland, while the Protestant nobility in England favored Elizabeth.


As the story of Mary Queen of Scots begins, that rivalry based on religion continues. With both women laying claim to being the rightful Queen of England, it becomes incumbent upon them to marry and produce an heir. Mary’s eventual husband, Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden), is an English noble whose marriage to her leads to a revolt headed by Mary’s half-brother, the Earl of Moray (James McArdle). Moray’s rebellion, aided by the English, soon fails, and Mary weds Darnley, eventually producing an heir, James (who as an adult becomes King James I of what then became the United Kingdom).


Darnley is not the most attentive husband in the world, preferring the attention of one of Mary’s most trusted advisers, David Rizzio (Ismael Cruz Cordova). That clandestine relationship eventually ends very badly for both Rizzio and Darnley, leading Mary into another marriage that also doesn’t end very well. When the nobles revolt against her, Mary has no choice but to flee to England to seek the protection of her cousin Elizabeth.


Many people don’t like European history precisely because it is filled with confusing plots and counterplots, shifting alliances, and complex relationships between countries and rulers. The real story of Mary and Elizabeth is filled with that sort of intrigue, and Willmon’s screenplay sets much of it out in often confusing detail. The first half of Mary Queen of Scots is full of lengthy, dimly lit scenes in crowded meeting halls where Mary and Elizabeth address a number of their advisors and other nobility. Although the film uses titles to describe the locations where various scenes take place (not much help for those unfamiliar with Scottish geography), it never bothers to do so to identify the characters or give an idea of the passage of time. Also, most of the nobles in the movie are bearded, similar looking, middle-aged men in substantially identical attire. As a result, unless someone is already very well versed on English history of that era, the plot will likely be very confusing.


Admittedly, the second half of Mary Queen of Scots is somewhat easier to follow, in large part because it highlights several very brutal murders. Watching lords and earls drone on at length is far less exciting than seeing people get hacked to bits. While I would hardly call Mary Queen of Scots an exploitation film, director Josie Rourke seems to recognize the assets she has to work with and takes full advantage of the cards that history has dealt her.


Actually, a couple of the characters in the movie are very easy to follow, although not for the reasons the filmmakers probably intended. Adrian Lester plays Lord Randolph, an emissary Elizabeth sends to Scotland, and Gemma Chan plays Elizabeth Hardwicke, one of Mary’s ladies-in-waiting. Lester is black, and Chan is half-Asian, ethnic traits not shared by the well-known historical characters they are playing, or, for that matter, by anyone in the Royal Courts of England or Scotland in that period. Obviously, this colorblind casting was an intentional choice by director Leslie Rourke, but it has the unfortunate effect here of being distracting. Lester calls attention to himself by his mere presence in every scene in which he appears, making the courtly intrigue even harder to follow.


That intrigue may or may not have the original emphasis of Beau Willmon’s screenplay, but it’s evident in the finished product that the point Rourke makes over and over is that the real intrigue was not between England and Scotland or between Catholic and Protestant but between male and female. In this case, both Mary and Elizabeth repeatedly found themselves at odds with their court and advisors who did not enjoy the prospect of absolute power being wielded by a woman. In Mary’s case, this displeasure manifests itself even more directly when she is raped by her future husband (actually a relatively common royal occurrence of the day). Rourke may have overemphasized this point beyond its historical significance, but she’s playing to a 21st-century audience, and the contrast between the sexual politics of the Elizabethan era and now is enlightening and at times makes a powerful statement.


Rourke’s movie doesn’t mark the first time that Mary and Elizabeth’s relationship made it to the big screen. In 1971, another film, also titled Mary Queen of Scots also earned praise for its stars, Oscar-nominated Vanessa Redgrave as Mary and Glenda Jackson as Elizabeth. Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie won’t get nominations here, but their performances (particularly Ronan’s in the meatier role) make the current version watchable at all times. She is very believable, especially in her love/hate relationships with the closest men in her life, and she turns the ending of the film into an affecting classic tragedy.


Historical movies shouldn’t require an expert knowledge of history before entering the theater in order to appreciate. Unfortunately, Rourke and Willmon make too many mistakes in structuring the first half of the film, and they lose the audience’s attention. Oddly, after watching Mary Queen of Scots, many people will only have the vaguest idea of the historical context. By contrast, the screenplay of The Favourite, another current period film featuring a battle between strong women, is quite easy to follow, even if most people have no real idea who the characters really are or when the film takes place. As a result of the confusing script, Mary Queen of Scots never really becomes anything more than a somewhat entertaining, lurid period melodrama, with plenty of sex and violence and some excellent acting from the lead performers. In an awards season with lots of top-notch competition, viewers interested in quality period drama may well decide to give Mary Queen of Scots the ax.

In this clip, Saoirse Ronan persuades Jack Lowden to propose to her.

Read other reviews of Mary Queen of Scots: 

Mary Queen of Scots (2018) on IMDb