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Royal rumble – ‘Mary Queen of Scots’

January 9, 2019
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There are few things that grab the attention of film award voters quite like royalty. They LOVE prestige fare about kings and queens; can’t get enough of it. Crowns and capes and thrones, palace intrigue and clanging swords and righteous rhetoric. These movies are almost always good, but to be better they need … something.

Maybe it’s a killer cast. Maybe it’s a filmmaker with a unique, unconventional perspective. Maybe it’s particularly compelling source material.

Or maybe, like with “Mary Queen of Scots,” it’s all three at once.

You’ve got two of Hollywood’s most talented young actresses leading the way in Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie, with four Oscar nominations between them. You’ve got a director in Josie Rourke who has never directed a film before but has extensive and acclaimed experience as a stage director of work both classic and contemporary. And you’ve got the story of the titular queen’s life as adapted from John Guy’s pioneering biography “Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart.”

And yet … it never manages to quite get over the top. While the performances from both Ronan and Robbie are outstanding and the look and tone of the film are suitably epic in scope and scale, the narrative is a bit overstuffed and lacking in specificity. Too often, things happen because they’re simply next on the list, rather than with any sort of agency or urgency behind them, which leads to more story-borne borderline-soapy melodrama than you might hope for in a film like this.

In the 16th century, Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan, “The Seagull”) – the widowed Queen of France – returns to her native Scotland to assume her rightful throne. She seeks recognition of her claim, but her cousin Queen Elizabeth (Margot Robbie, “Terminal”) maintains dominion over both England and Scotland and wishes it to remain so.

What follows is an ongoing dance, a negotiation whose tone moves from relative friendliness to necessary civility to outright brutality and so on, all dependent on who is doing the talking and whether anyone is listening.

Mary faces betrayal on all sides, with no idea who she can trust. Her half-brother James (James McArdle, “On the Road”) has served as Scotland’s regent and has his own ideas about who should reign over Scotland. So too does John Knox (David Tennant, “Bad Samaritan”), a theologian who rails against Mary’s fitness to rule, citing both her gender and her Catholic faith. Scores of men (always men) who believe they know how best to rule – all willing to sacrifice Mary’s well-being in order to seize that power.

Meanwhile, Elizabeth is counseled by primary advisor William Cecil (Guy Pearce, “The Catcher Was a Spy”) and her consort Robert Dudley (Joe Alwyn, “The Favourite”); she continually shifts the intent of her negotiations with Mary, with nothing the erstwhile successor doing ever being good enough. The fight rages for years, in throne rooms and bedrooms and on the field of battle, all because of one woman’s quest to claim her birthright … and the many men who sought to keep her from it.

Here’s the thing - “Mary Queen of Scots” is a fine film, albeit one that suffers in comparison to its recent “twin” movie “The Favourite.” Yes, they’re different queens operating in different times for different stakes, but royalty is royalty; it’s tough to argue against the latter film’s general superiority. Is the comparison fair? Perhaps not, but there’s no disputing that the impression of one colors the impression made by the other.

Don’t get me wrong – there’s plenty to like. We can start with the performances, far and away the highlight of this film. Ronan is an absolute powerhouse on-screen; her talent is immense and accessible in ways far beyond that of most of her peers. There’s an undeniable magnetism to her, a deep well of energy that she pulls from with ease. Mary was complex in her actions; Ronan gives those actions their justification. Robbie is wonderful as well, embracing the insecurity that can come with being given a job you’re not sure you can handle. The sense of inner conflict she mines feels genuine in a way that’s difficult to elicit. Moments of absolute certainty and desperate confusion commingle beautifully in both performances; Ronan and Robbie each seize control of their respective parts of the narrative.

The rest of the cast is fine, though they feel a bit underdeveloped (this despite a too-long runtime). Few of them are given much to do; McArdle and Pearce do all right with what they’ve got, though they both feel a bit one-note. Alwyn feels wasted. Tennant brings an effective self-righteous bluster to the proceedings; it’s good to start, but becomes a bit much. Much of the rest of the ensemble blurs together; with few exceptions, everyone feels pretty interchangeable and/or disposable.

And while Rourke’s film inexperience might have shown through in a couple of spots, the truth is that she definitely had an understanding of who these people are supposed to be and the world in which they are supposed to exist. Things feel both sweeping and lived-in; it’s just right.

But the script. The script lets them down. It’s somehow overly busy without ever feeling like much is going on. Events are strung together with very little connective tissue; there’s no depth of understanding as to why things are happening, making it difficult to really engage in any kind of meaningful way. Any connection we have is brought forth by Ronan and Robbie’s respective performances rather than anything driven by the narrative.

“Mary Queen of Scots” is a decent costume drama. There’s nothing wrong with that. However, it seems clear that the people involved wanted it to be more. Alas, it just missed. It might not be “The Favourite” – or your favorite – but it’s still worth your time.

[4 out of 5]

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