Mary Queen of Scots
Director: Josie Rourke Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Margot Robbie
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.”