14 Dec 18
“MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS”
Rated R. At Kendall Square Cinema, AMC Loews Boston Common and Coolidge Corner Theatre.
I’m sure that Mary Queen of Scots was more than the badly married, scheming pain in the neck we see portrayed by Saoirse Ronan in “Mary Queen of Scots.” Directed by Josie Rourke, who has been the artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse theater in London’s Covent Garden since 2012, the film, co-starring Margot Robbie as Queen Elizabeth I, was scripted by Beau Willimon (“House of Cards”) based on a book by historian John Guy. It’s often like the Tudor version of “Mean Girls.”
In opening scenes, Mary and her retinue, including retainers of African and Asian descent, arrive at Edinburgh Castle in 1561, where they set up residence. If you haven’t brushed up on the history of the period, you may have trouble keeping up. Mary Queen of Scots aka Mary Stuart is the Catholic cousin of Elizabeth I, Queen of England and Ireland, and the daughter of the late King James of Scotland. Mary was the queen consort of France and once claimed to be the rightful heir to Elizabeth’s throne and considered such by English Catholics. Ensconced in windy Edinburgh, Mary is reunited with her illegitimate half-brother James Stewart (James McArdle) and soon marries Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden), who is a drunkard and gay. Mary, nevertheless, gets pregnant.
For her part, the beautiful Elizabeth, who will suffer from smallpox and be severely scarred, canoodles with man-candy Robert Dudley (Joe Alwyn, much better in the “other” period film of the moment, “The Favourite”). Elizabeth, however, never marries and does not provide an heir to her throne. She does, on the other hand, reign for a very long time, while her make-up gets whiter and her wigs redder, until she looks more clown than crown. Intrigues are hatched. Elizabeth, who says she is “more man than woman,” is rightfully paranoid about Mary, who wants to be named Elizabeth’s successor. Scotland’s Protestants led by John Knox (David Tennant) detest “Papist” Mary. Hating them back, Mary plots. In a scene that is fiction, the royal relatives meet and refer to each other insincerely as “sister,” and they are in many ways real and spiritual doppelgangers and mirror images, although they should certainly never be left alone together, again. Most of us know this is going to end badly and for whom.
Queen Elizabeth has been played on the screen by Bette Davis, Judi Dench, Miranda Richardson, Cate Blanchett, who has played her twice, and others (Quentin Crisp, anyone?). Of course, there was the 1971 “Mary, Queen of Scots” with the comma and powerhouses Vanessa Redgrave and Glenda Jackson. Watching “Mary Queen of Scots,” I found myself more impressed with the wardrobe (Tudor fanny packs?), beards and wigs than the many schemes, romances and plots. Seldom has such a monumental game of thrones seemed so plodding. Robbie and Ronan are both prisoners of the coiffures, costumes and dialogue. Screenwriter Willimon, who has established himself as a political dramatist (his credits include George Clooney’s 2011 contemporary drama “The Ides of March”), has written a film that has the look of history, but little of the sweep, grandeur or fun. Paging Blackadder.
(“Mary Queen of Scots” contains sexually suggestive scenes and violence.)