Movie Review: Mary Queen of Scots (2018)

Late last year saw the US release of a pair of films about British royalty from years gone by but they couldn’t be more different. THE FAVOURITE, which is a witty, dark comedy, garnered 144 awards including an Oscar to Olivia Colman for her performance as Queen Anne. MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS, on the other hand, plays it straight (no pun intended, as you’ll learn below) but it only won four awards. It’s not that MQoS is a bad film though. It’s just not as good as it could have been.

The year is 1561 and 19-year-old Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan, LADY BIRD; BROOKLYN) has just returned to her native Scotland following the death of her husband, Francis II of France, who was just 16. (If you know your history or even if you watch Game of Thrones, you’ll know that people married young and died young back then.) While Mary was away, which was for most of her life, her older half-brother, James Stewart (James McArdle, ’71), ruled Scotland as her regent. With Mary now ready to take charge as the country’s Catholic queen, James is shunted aside, which he agrees to do but with quiet reservations that he shares with his all-male colleagues. Meanwhile, down south in England, Mary’s cousin, Queen Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie, I, TONYA; GOODBYE CHRISTOPHER ROBIN; THE LEGEND OF TARZAN; THE BIG SHORT) is even less pleased with the new status quo on her northern border. Aside from practicing a different religion from Elizabeth (who was Protestant) as well as a good portion of the Scottish populace, Mary has a strong claim to the British throne, which will only get stronger if she produces an heir. Elizabeth, who is single, doesn’t want to get married or have children anytime soon and that could be problematic for the longevity of the House of Tudor. With her cadre of men advising her, Elizabeth plots to undermine Mary’s authority in Scotland at every turn. Mary, however, proves to be a worthy adversary even as she tries to bring Elizabeth around to her vision of a unified kingdom under the House of Stuart.

Based on the biography Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart by British historian John Guy, MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS presents a somewhat different take on the life of the young queen than what we’re used to hearing and seeing. Here, Mary is shown to have a very liberal attitude towards gender fluidity. Her eventual second husband, Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden, DENIAL; A UNITED KINGDOM; ’71), is portrayed as being bisexual, which doesn’t seem to bother Mary as long as he gives her an heir. More eyebrow-raising though, is the portrayal of Mary’s close friend and private secretary, the Italian musician David Rizzio (Ismael Cruz Córdova, BILLY LYNN’S LONG HALFTIME WALK), who apparently is gay — possibly bisexual as well — and enjoys cross-dressing for the queen. It’s not the first time that both these men have been shown on screen to be gay though. In the 1971 film of the same name starring Vanessa Redgrave and Glenda Jackson, Darnley and Rizzio also had a sexual relationship. (It apparently did not go down well with audiences at the time!) In this new film, however, Mary offers Rizzio some very 21st century-sounding advice, effectively telling him to embrace his inner woman. The two films also share the viewpoint that the two queens finally meet though historians say that there is no evidence to suggest that they ever did.

Revisionist history aside, MQoS comes awfully close to being a slog to watch, which is quite a feat considering the solid performances that the film’s two leads put in. Unfortunately, Beau Willimon’s (TV’s HOUSE OF CARDS) screenplay lacks spark and first-time director Josie Rourke spends far too much time showing scenes involving Mary and her all-female (plus Rizzio) retinue, leaving the queen’s 18 years of incarceration as a near post-script. Even the movie’s key scene where the two monarchs meet is botched when Elizabeth mentions her wig. This film needed to have less talk and more action… and presented in a way that had less cutting back and forth between England and Scotland à la “Meanwhile, back in London,…”. I’ll give Rourke credit for her bold decision to cast colourblind, though many people have voiced their displeasure at seeing a black ambassador and an Asian lady-in-waiting. These people clearly never get out to the theatre. Yes, I know Mary and Elizabeth didn’t have such people in their courts but can’t we all just go with it for two hours?

As far as period costume dramas go, MQoS is just okay but if the film’s overarching message is supposed to be that women are stronger together than they are apart or that being a woman in a man’s world was just as tough 450 years ago as it is today, I wish it would have been told with a bit more excitement.

Watch the review recorded on Facebook Live on Friday, March 15th at 8:30 am HK time!

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