FILM PUTS A MODERN SPIN ON ‘MARY, QUEEN OF SCOTS’

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“Mary, Queen of Scots ” is an am­bi­tious reimag­in­ing of the Mary Stu­art and El­iz­a­beth I saga with modern flour­ishes and bold per­for­mances from Saoirse Ro­nan and Mar­got Rob­bie. But the film, for all its pres­tige and edgi­ness, its lofty goals and con­tem­po­rary mes­sages, is not a par­tic­u­larly en­gross­ing ex­pe­ri­ence.

It’s a shame too, be­cause most of the el­e­ments are there. The gor­geous cos­tumes and metic­u­lous set­tings are breath­tak­ing, and they couldn’t have cho­sen two leads bet­ter suited to play­ing these women, with Ro­nan as Mary and Rob­bie as El­iz­a­beth. They just don’t come to­gether very well, strad­dling an awk­ward line be­tween want­ing to be both a modern ref­er­en­dum on the real strug­gles of be­ing a fe­male leader in the 16th cen­tury and a “Game

of Thrones”-style ac­tioner. Di­rec­tor Josie Rourke, who has a back­ground in the­ater, cer­tainly has a knack for grandeur and drama. But choppy edit­ing and stilted story evo­lu­tion never re­ally do jus­tice to what should be an epic and sus­pense­ful tale of po­lit­i­cal machi­na­tions and power strug­gles.

The story it­self is fas­ci­nat­ing. Mary, a Catholic wid­owed at 18 from the King of France, re­turns to Scot­land to rule. She has eyes on Eng­land too, which is un­der the rule of her cousin, El­iz­a­beth I, a Protes­tant who re­fuses to marry and pro­duce an heir. A hus­band, El­iz­a­beth ac­cu­rately con­cludes, will just try to take the throne from her. And the men in both of their camps try their best to make a peace­ful re­la­tion­ship be­tween the two coun­tries im­pos­si­ble.

But the ques­tion of a suc­ces­sor re­mains and be­comes ur­gent when Mary comes back on the scene and starts mak­ing her own claims to the throne. The two rulers cor­re­spond and ne­go­ti­ate in an elab­o­rate game of chess in which ev­ery­one is at­tempt­ing to ma­nip­u­late an un­sta­ble sit­u­a­tion. El­iz­a­beth tries to of­fer up a hus­band to Mary, in her own lover Robert Dud­ley (Joe Al­wyn), as a strate­gic plant. But, Mary, see­ing through the plan, weds an­other En­glish­man, the charis­matic Lord Darn­ley (Jack Low­den), en­sur­ing that her off­spring would have a le­git­i­mate claim to the throne.

There are in­ter­est­ing ideas to ex­plore about be­ing a pow­er­ful woman in this time. But the script from “House of Cards” cre­ator Beau Wil­limon seems to over­sim­plify things. He imag­ines a re­la­tion­ship that de­volves mostly be­cause of El­iz­a­beth’s jeal­ousy of Mary’s youth, beauty and abil­ity to bear chil­dren. This point is

ham­mered over and over, as El­iz­a­beth, hear­ing that Mary is preg­nant, gath­ers her skirt to just see what she would look like preg­nant in sil­hou­ette. The birth scene is even more nox­ious, cut­ting back and forth from Mary in la­bor, to poor, sad El­iz­a­beth cre­at­ing the only thing she can — pa­per flow­ers.

The film takes enor­mous lib­er­ties with his­tory, bring­ing the two rulers to­gether for a face-to­face con­ver­sa­tion, and in­fus­ing the cast with more di­verse faces and themes to vary­ing de­grees of suc­cess. That con­ver­sa­tion that ap­par­ently never hap­pened is well worth the fac­tual le­niency. It’s the scene that the whole film is build­ing to­ward and both Rob­bie and Ro­nan are ex­tremely com­pelling — vul­ner­a­ble and in­tro­spec­tive yet also fierce and un­wa­ver­ing — in this power show­down.

Un­for­tu­nately the jour­ney to get to this part is long and, for long stretches, quite dreary and dull. “Mary, Queen of Scots” also has the mis­for­tune of com­ing out around the same time as the de­li­ciously com­pelling and lively Queen Anne film “The Favourite” and might get lost in the shuf­fle. This is a more staid and straight­for­ward ex­pe­ri­ence, and, for some cos­tume drama en­thu­si­asts, pos­si­bly even the prefer­able one. But for this critic, “Mary, Queen of Scots” was roy­ally un­der­whelm­ing.

“Mary, Queen of Scots,” a Fo­cus Fea­tures re­lease, is rated R by the Mo­tion Pic­ture As­so­ci­a­tion of Amer­ica for “for some vi­o­lence and sex­u­al­ity.” Run­ning time: 112 min­utes. Two and a half stars out of four. MPAA Def­i­ni­tion of R: Re­stricted. Un­der 17 re­quires ac­com­pa­ny­ing par­ent or adult guardian.

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