Review: Mary Queen of Scots

The rapid rise and fall of Mary Stuart has been filmed a number of times before, so director Josie Rourke needs a damn good reason to stick our noses in the tragedy once again. Her revisionist take, turning the rivalry between Mary (Saoirse Ronan), who, when her husband, the king of France, dies, returns to reclaim her throne in Scotland at the age of 18, and her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie), into a cautionary feminist tale about two strong-willed women struggling to navigate a world of men who don’t trust them, is interesting up to a point, but it still has to contend with certain inalienable facts that have to be explained if anything is to make any sense, and, as a result, Mary Queen of Scots comes across as schematic and dramatically anemic.

Rourke’s boldest move is to create a tone of mutual respect between the two monarchs that wasn’t necessarily in evidence in the history books. Being a Catholic, Mary creates twice the anxiety among the Protestant clergy in Scotland and England—which, due to her birthright, she could end up reigning over one day—and John Knox, the head of the Church of Scotland, brands her not only a papist but a harlot, thus taking advantage of her supposedly tainted womanhood to shore up his own power among his flock. Elizabeth isn’t given much of the benefit of the doubt when she schemes to send her own lover (Joe Alwyn) to Scotland to marry the queen in order to ensure that a Protestant is in the court. Mary, of course, rebuffs the entreaty and doubles down on her demand to be named heir to the English throne. Though enmities are enflamed, most of them are fueled by frustration that it is their respective womanhood that is being insulted by the men who advise them. In the end, Rourke stages a secret meeting between the two queens that, apparently, never happened, and she fails to make it worth the wait.

The movie stays true to its title by mostly taking Mary’s side. Elizabeth doesn’t have that many scenes to her herself, and her main troubles seem to be her complexion, which has been ruined by a near fatal dose of pox. Here again, Rourke brings up an interesting if marginal aspect of the Elizabeth legend and does really nothing with it except highlight how looks are still the measure of a woman, even when she’s an absolute ruler. There’s also a kind of hipster cast to the whole production design, from the bushiness of the beards (which make all the males look so much alike I had trouble telling one from another) to the somewhat cynical flow of the dialogue. “Your gifts are your downfall,” says Elizabeth to Mary when they finally meet, a prescient but meaningless observation. It’s as if Elizabeth had seen all the other Mary Queen of Scots movies.

Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Chanter (050-6868-5001), Bunkamura Le Cinema (03-3477-9264).

Mary Queen of Scots home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2018 Focus Features LLC

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