Thursday 20 December 2018

Movie Review: Mary Queen Of Scots (2018)

A historical drama, Mary Queen Of Scots explores the reign of Mary Stuart and her rivalry with England's Queen Elizabeth.

A prologue shows Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan), known as Mary Queen of Scots, being marched to her death by beheading in 1587. In flashback to 1561, Mary returns to Scotland from France after the death of her first husband, and claims her rightful throne. Her half-brother the Earl of Moray (James McArdle) was acting as Regent and reluctantly makes way. Protestant leaders are more vocally opposed to Mary's rule, viewing her ties to Catholicism and the Pope with suspicion.

Mary also has a strong claim to the throne of England, but through correspondence signals her willingness to cooperate with the reigning Queen Elizabeth (Margot Robbie) as long as Elizabeth names Mary as her successor. The unmarried and barren Elizabeth is wary of Mary's ambition and threat from any future heirs. Elizabeth attempts to have Mary wed the English Robert Dudley (Joe Alwyn), who is under Elizabeth's control. Mary refuses and marries another Englishman, Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden), but the union triggers further plots against her rule.

Covering ground previously filmed in 1971 with Vanessa Redgrave and Glenda Jackson, the 2018 version is visually satisfying and more brazenly invades Mary's bedroom and inner sanctum, but otherwise offers a muddled narrative. Directed by Josie Rourke from a Beau Willimon script, the film takes the usual number of liberties with history, including imagining a secret meeting between the two Queens. More troublesome is an unnecessarily deep bow to modern sensibilities by transforming both the Scottish and English courts into bastions of multi-cultural diversity.

But the film's central problem resides in the noble intention of portraying Mary as a benevolent ruler, but then harbouring all the power within the men conspiring around her. The Earl of Moray, Lord Maitland (Ian Hart), Lord Darnley and advisor/musician David Rizzio (Ismael Cruz Córdova) plus another clutch of men surrounding Elizabeth hold all the cards and manipulate events to their liking. Their characters and motivations are reduced to tangential afterthoughts, leaving Mary as a stranded figure buffeted by barely explained intentions.

The one interesting theme ironically emerges in the English court. Elizabeth refuses to consider marriage and refuses to name an heir, thereby protecting her position. Her gradual realization that Mary's femininity and fertility contribute greatly to her weakness and downfall is a reaffirmation of women's weakened status at the time, even when bestowed with the title of monarchs.

Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie both occupy their roles with conviction. Ronan in particular thrives in portraying a young Queen, not yet 19 years old when she ascended to the throne, caught between the playfulness of a young adult and the responsibilities of ruling. However, the script offers few standout moments or memorable highlights for either actress to truly shine.

Mary Queen Of Scots is competently staged, but also caught between queens on the throne and kingmakers in the shadows.

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