Thursday, 24 January 2019

Film Review - Mary Queen of Scots (15)

'England does not look so different from Scotland.'
'Aye, they are sisters.'
Lordy but historically-based films get people's knickers in a twist. Earlier this month it was all about The Favourite being too weird with those low-angled shots and random acts of spite. Now Mary Queen of Scots, a much more conventionally-made period movie, is coming under fire on grounds of historical accuracy. You see Mary Stuart never did meet her sister Elizabeth I, to our knowledge, in all the years they were in conflict. Yet here - no great spoiler - they do. It's almost like the film-makers are trying to deliver an entertaining drama with a powerful final-act payoff rather than a history lesson. Outrageous! They should have had them writing letters like happened in reality, because - you know - that'd be cinematic.
Thing is, director Josie Rourke doesn't simply keep the scene so that two of the strongest film actresses around today (watch Lady Bird and I, Tonya if you think I'm lying) can share a bit of scintillating screen time. The dramatic licence taken by the script is rooted in how both main characters are presented, and makes the story all the more resonant as a result. This movie is simultaneously steeped in the sixteenth century and very much of today.
The opening alludes to Mary's eventual sad fate, before flashing back to her arrival in Scotland as a young woman, having lived out her girlhood married to the King of France. Now a widow she assumes her rightful position as Queen of Scotland and is welcomed - initially at least - by her half-brother and Catholic followers, who support her claim to the English crown. But Mary is also viewed by some as more pawn than queen in the game of thrones being played with Elizabeth I; her independent spirit clashes with even her closest advisors, many of whom are prone to conspire against her. Meanwhile her sister Elizabeth is similarly hemmed in by the men of her court, while both fearful and fascinated by the sister who would oust her. 
And that is what makes this version distinctive, based as it is on John Guy's 2004 revisionist history Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart. Rather than pit good queen against bad queen, it presents two women who, were it not for the powerful men surrounding them, might just come to an accommodation. Saoirse Ronan is tremendously strong in the central role of Mary. Strikingly attired and sporting a fine Scots accent (yes, historical pedants, I'm aware the real Mary's accent would have been French), she's spirited and life-embracing - never more so than in the company of her ladies-in-waiting - but gradually worn down through attrition with her so-called allies. Margot Robbie provides a fine counterpoint as Elizabeth - a lonelier figure and with little of Mary's warmth, but equalling her single-mindedness and determination. The intention in Beau Willimon's screenplay is clear - these women, if they only knew it, are the least of each other's problems.
Mary Queen of Scots is a handsomely crafted film too. It revels in its stunning Scottish locations, while director Rourke's theatre background provides a sense of dramatic sweep and grandeur. There's theatricality likewise in the intimate moments, serving to freshen well-worn historical details of love and betrayal. Inevitably certain characters are sketched rather than fully realised; David Tennant is entertaining as Reformist preacher John Knox, but he's never more than a two-dimensional sectarian ranter (Jack Lowden gets to realise Mary's husband Lord Darnley, for example, much more fully). And the politics occasionally becomes muddled, slowing things down at the expense of the drama. It takes Ronan's stirring central performance to keep things on track.
This Mary retelling works best as a portrait of two queens - neither of them perfect and neither a monster, both strong and fully human. By portraying them as fiercely purposeful women in a male world that would shape them into the image it prefers, the story takes on a sharp contemporary edge. Nor does it lose any of its period flavour in the process. So, a few liberties are taken with historical fact to explore these characters in a fresh way, to indulge in a bit of 'what if...'. Mary Stuart and Elizabeth Tudor have been figures of historical obsession for centuries. Surely they deserve a bit of screen time together.
Gut Reaction: A bit of wishing I'd read up on my history prior to the cinema visit, but mostly active enjoyment, particularly at Saoirse and Margot strutting their royal stuff.

Memorable Moment: Sister meets sister, queen meets queen, Lady Bird meets Tonya. Irresistible.

Ed's Verdict: 7.5/10. Never less than gorgeous, this is a solid film-making debut for Rourke and a great showcase for Ronan and Robbie. Let them share the crown.

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