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Friday, December 14, 2018

Mary Queen of Scots



The trailers and advertisements for director Josie Rourke's Mary Queen of Scots paint this period drama as a clash of wills between Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland (Saoirse Ronan) and Queen Elizabeth I of England (Margot Robbie), and this is accurate but only up to a point. The true enemy of Mary isn't Elizabeth but Scotland itself, specifically the vile Protestant men in court scheming against the Catholic queen. It's actually quite strange to see the Scots as the bad guys; after Braveheart, Outlaw King, and even Trainspotting, it's become cliche to see the Scottish as scrappy underdogs worth cheering for. But the men surrounding Mary Stuart are all heartless assholes who resented being ruled by a woman and they conspired to take her down.

Set between the years 1561 when Mary returned to Scotland after living most of her life in France, reigning briefly as Queen of France, to 1578 when she loses her head thanks to an executioner's axe, Mary Queen of Scots presents the titular monarch's life as one of regal poise and progressive ideas pitted against the constant, sneering disapproval of the men of her court. This includes her bastard half-brother James, Earl of Moray and Regent of Scotland (James McArdle) and the two men who would become Mary's husbands, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden) and James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell (Martin Compston). There's also John Knox (an unrecognizable David Tennant), a Protestant reformer who absolutely hates Mary Stuart's guts and constantly preached shit like "it is more than a monster in nature that a Woman shall reign and have empire above Man.” (Knox just hated ladies in general, it seems.) 

Mary's inner circle of handmaidens protected her as best they could, but her secretary David Rizzio (Ismael Cruz Cordova) paid a high price for the crime of "being one of the girls", i.e. being gay. According to Mary Queen of Scots, the Queen's power hungry husband Lord Darnley was also gay (something Mary didn't realize when he seduced her by performing oral sex on her but then declined her reciprocating) and slept with Rizzio on her wedding night. Later, Darnley joins in a coup that saw a bunch of Scots storm into Mary's chambers and murder Rizzio Julius Caesar-style, effectively placing Mary under house arrest until she raised an army and regained control of the kingdom, granting pardons to the traitors. And this was after she had already defeated her English-supported half-brother James' attempt at a coup. After forgiving James and taking him back into her heart, even making James protector of her son, the future King James I of England and Scotland whom she named after him, her half-brother pulls off another coup attempt, sending Mary into exile in England.

While she was surrounded by a nest of vipers in Scotland, the film's juiciest conflict is between Mary and Elizabeth. The tall, youthful, and beautiful Mary is contrasted by an envious Elizabeth, the husband-less, child-less Virgin Queen who is scarred by smallpox (the film works overtime with makeup and prosthetic nose to try to disguise Robbie's movie star beauty, to moderate effect). Mary's royal bloodline gave her claim to England's throne - possibly a stronger claim than Elizabeth's - but the two Queens mostly communicated by exchanging civil and flattering letters and through envoys. The tension between them centered on the matter of succession; Mary wanted Elizabeth to declare her the presumptive heir to the English crown, while Elizabeth wished for Mary to wed her consort Robert Dudley (Joe Alwyn). Neither queen acquiesed the other, but when Mary named Elizabeth James' godmother, the Queen of England agreed to name James her successor. 

Once Mary flees Scotland for sanctuary in England, Mary Queen of Scots delivers the scene it built the entire movie towards: a (fictional) face-to-face confrontation between Mary and Elizabeth where Mary pleaded for Elizabeth to help her regain her throne and then insulted the Queen of England when she refused. As the monarchs, Ronan is remarkable; she's a beautiful, proud, charming, and at times ferocious Mary Stuart (whom the movie doesn't see fit to age despite 17 years of time passing in the film). Despite her top billing, Robbie really only plays a supporting role as Elizabeth and she works hard to convey the multitude of passions Elizabeth hid beneath her Gloriana facade. 

The climactic confrontation between Mary and Elizabeth is like a historical costume drama version of Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro's diner scene in Heat but, like Mary Queen of Scots overall, it doesn't quite deliver all of the goods, despite the electric and emotional performances by Ronan and Robbie. However, like in Heat, after the face-to-face, the movie ends with one of them dead and the other regretting it because they kind of liked the person they had to kill. But what can you do? That's the job of being a cop Queen.