Mary Queen of Scots

Direc­tor: Josie Rourke Star­ring: Saoirse Ro­nan, Mar­got Rob­bie

Variety - - Exposure | Dirt Parties Wwd Report Card Devour - BY PETER DE­BRUGE

By any ac­count, death by be­head­ing is a hor­ri­ble way to go. For Mary Stu­art, it was an es­pe­cially grisly af­fair, re­quir­ing three good whacks of the ax to de­cap­i­tate a woman who, to her per­pet­ual un­hap­pi­ness, had as much a claim to Eng­land’s throne as her cousin, Queen Elizabeth. Like an en­tire sea­son of peak tele­vi­sion crammed into the space of two hours, “Mary Queen of Scots” spares us not only the butch­ery but also a great deal of the drama that might ex­plain how the mis­for­tu­nate monarch came to find her neck on the line.

And yet, the dream cast­ing of peer­less Ir­ish-amer­i­can ac­tress Saoirse Ro­nan in the ti­tle role (her first time play­ing so far back from the 20th cen­tury) ought to be rea­son enough to jus­tify an­other look at Mary’s tor­rid early years. Mary fre­quently has been de­picted as a sex­u­ally lib­er­ated and/or pro­mis­cu­ous char­ac­ter, with her three mar­riages — and the tragic fates that be­fell each of those spouses — serv­ing as fer­tile ma­te­rial for hot­blooded screen­writ­ers to ex­ploit.

By con­trast, it’s as if direc­tor Josie Rourke — a vet­eran stage maven who takes to the big screen as if she were born for it — were de­ter­mined to re­store some dig­nity to one of his­tory’s most misunderstood women (two, if you count Mar­got Rob­bie’s Elizabeth I), which is no small task at a mo­ment in which au­di­ences typ­i­cally ex­pect more sen­sa­tional de­pic­tions of royal in­trigue, such as The CW’S rel­a­tively soapy “Reign.” Rourke presents Mary as a woman who had lit­tle time for erotic fri­vol­ity, sur­rounded as she was by men de­ter­mined to usurp her power.

In that re­spect, Mary shared many of the same frus­tra­tions as Elizabeth. Both were for­mi­da­ble char­ac­ters, whether judged by to­day’s stan­dards or those of the 16th cen­tury. With its strong em­pha­sis on in­sti­tu­tion­al­ized sex­ism, Rourke’s film feels well suited to the #Me­too mo­ment, con­trast­ing Mary and Elizabeth’s far dif­fer­ent strate­gies for main­tain­ing what each be­lieved to be her God- given legacy.

Packed with plot twists and palace in­trigue, the screen­play was adapted from Bri­tish his­to­rian John Guy’s “Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stu­art” by po­lit­i­cal ob­ses­sive Beau Wil­limon, cre­ator of “House of Cards,” a show whose con­spir­a­to­rial back­stab­bing of­ten feels bet­ter matched to an­cient Rome — or El­iz­a­bethan Eng­land. Here, he’s free to ex­am­ine how that dy­namic might have cre­ated a state of con­stant para­noia for a pair of queens tasked with lead­ing na­tions that stuffed their court with men who pose as ad­vis­ers while seek­ing to un­der­mine them.

In the­ory, that makes for en­tic­ing drama, although with Mary in var­i­ous somber-look­ing Scot­tish cas­tles (none of which make her sec­ond-place- queen ti­tle seem all that glam­orous) and Elizabeth back in Lon­don, their long- dis­tance ri­valry poses a par­tic­u­lar chal­lenge to the film­mak­ers.

Push­ing back against her the­atri­cal roots, Rourke — who, as artis­tic direc­tor of Lon­don’s Don­mar Ware­house, has ex­per­i­mented with a hand­ful of live cin­ema broad­casts of high-pro­file plays — reaches for all man­ner of creative cin­e­matic so­lu­tions, some more suc­cess­ful than oth­ers. Rather than wast­ing time watch­ing char­ac­ters re­cite col­or­ful di­a­logue on well- dressed stages, she pares back the chitchat and goes look­ing for op­por­tu­ni­ties to take her cam­eras out­side. Just as re­gal in ei­ther con­text, Ro­nan comes across poised and as­sertive be­fore her skep­ti­cal sub­jects.

The fre­quent views of un­spoiled Scot­tish scenery work to keep things vis­ually in­ter­est­ing but can make the Cliffs Notes his­tory con­fus­ing for au­di­ences strug­gling to keep the char­ac­ters straight. The cu­mu­la­tive ef­fect is much closer to the bold style of Shekhar Ka­pur’s “Elizabeth” than to a more tra­di­tional “Mas­ter­piece Theatre” pro­duc­tion, although such choices can be dis­tract­ing from the al­ready dense plot. By the fi­nal half-hour, dou­ble crosses are com­ing at such a dizzy­ing pace that it’s vir­tu­ally im­pos­si­ble for the movie to sus­tain a co­her­ent nar­ra­tive rhythm, mak­ing the en­tire con­struct of royal suc­ces­sion feel ab­surd.

Though the ensem­ble is pep­pered with fa­mil­iar faces — in­clud­ing David Ten­nant and Guy Pearce as ex­pert ma­nip­u­la­tors, each work­ing on a dif­fer­ent queen — cast­ing was done with a mod­ern sense of col­or­blind­ness, mak­ing room for non­white ac­tors such as Gemma Chan (“Crazy Rich Asians”) and Adrian Lester (who has played “Othello” on­stage) to lend their tal­ents to the mix. Also cut­ting edge is the in­clu­sion of sev­eral ho­mo­erotic threads, most notably the por­trayal of Mary’s in­ner- cir­cle ad­viser Rizzio (Is­mael Cruz Cordova) as an openly gay man al­lowed to min­gle among her cham­ber­maids, and later, to se­duce her sec­ond hus­band, Lord Darn­ley (Jack Low­den), with dis­as­trous con­se­quences for all.

From the open­ing scene, which fore­bodes Mary’s demise, au­di­ences know where her fate is headed, though the other be­tray­als are played like the bloody reck­on­ings of a “Game of Thrones”-style series, mi­nus most of the char­ac­ter-build­ing con­nec­tive tis­sue that makes us care. The movie ex­cul­pates Mary from the worst of these while treat­ing the hard­en­ing of Elizabeth — a char­ac­ter that Rob­bie con­vinc­ingly evolves from beau­ti­ful and el­i­gi­ble young queen to pox-scarred sov­er­eign, gov­erned by dis­trust and in­de­pen­dence — as the true tragedy.

CRED­ITS: A Fo­cus Fea­tures re­lease and pre­sen­ta­tion, in as­so­ci­a­tion with Per­fect World Pic­tures. Pro­duc­ers: Tim Be­van, Eric Fell­ner, De­bra Hay­ward. Ex­ec­u­tive pro­duc­ers: Amelia Granger, Liza Chasin, Kate Pak­en­ham. Co-pro­ducer: Jane Robert­son. Direc­tor: Josie Rourke. Screen­play: Beau Wil­limon, based on the book “Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stu­art,” by Dr. John Guy. Cam- era (color, widescreen): John Mathieson. Editor: Chris Dick­ens. Mu­sic: Max Richter. Re­viewed at Wil­shire Screen­ing Room, Los An­ge­les, Nov. 6, 2018. MPAA Rat­ing: R. Run­ning time: 124 MIN. Cast: Saoirse Ro­nan, Mar­got Rob­bie, Jack Low­den, Joe Al­wyn, David Ten­nant, Guy Pearce, Gemma Chan, Martin Comp­ston, Is­mael Cruz Cordova, Bren­dan Coyle, Ian Hart, Adrian Lester, James Mcar­dle

Go­ing the Dis­tanceIan Hart, Jack Low­den, Saoirse Ro­nan and James Mcar­dle star in “Mary Queen of Scots.”

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