By: Henry J. Fromage (Four Beers) –
I was sold on Mary Queen of Scots from the first trailer. Two of last year’s Best Actress contenders in Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie facing off in the true story of the power struggle and personal relationship between Queen Elizabeth of England and Queen Mary of Scotland? What’s not to love?
Mary Queen of Scots is about the return of Queen Mary, formerly of France until her young husband passed away, to Scotland, where she also has a royal claim (as well as England’s own throne upon which Elizabeth sits). As she maneuvers to secure her power, she finds that Elizabeth’s reluctance to take a husband may be the wisest course for a young queen in the 1500s.
This is Saoirse Ronan’s film, and she runs with it. Her Mary commands the screen- strong-willed, often to a fault, but compassionate and girlish as befits her easy to forget youth. A survivor that has seen too much but who still has some of the girl left to her. Robbie is also strong in the material she was given, delivering a more tentative, fearful portrayal of Elizabeth than we’re used to seeing. Finally, you can’t find fault in the sumptuous costuming or intriguing, lived-in set design nor John Mathieson’s sweeping cinematography or Max Richter’s classical score. A very handsomely produced film all around.
There are two ahistorical touches that will jump out at you. First, it won’t be long before you take note of some anachronistic diversity in the casting choices, which bothered me at first (there’s almost a checklist in play- one of everything, please!), but which I have to give some respect to the director, Josie Rourke’s reasoning: “Just so you know, I’m not doing to direct an all-white period drama. That’s not something I’m going to do.”
Y’all love Hamilton, right?
The second, the face to face showdown between Mary and Elizabeth, would have been a highlight of the film if it had been set up correctly (more on that later).
It’s the less-obvious historical embellishments that end up hurting the film most, however. Essentially everything that gets sexy and bi-curious about the film is total bunk, and the true history of Mary’s relationship to her asshole second husband is far, far sadder and her relationship to her third far, far more soapily interesting. Neither truth, nor the fact that Mary’s religion was more asset than liability in her quest for the crown, fits the storyline of Mary as feminist martyr, however, so it’s discarded.
That reading of the intent of this telling of the story belies the strangely unfeminist roles these strong women ultimately fit, however. The agency that Mary displays is largely spent making short-sighted decisions in fits of passion, and Elizabeth gets almost none at all. She spends the far smaller amount of screentime than you’d expect from the trailers that she has largely moping about how much prettier and more fertile Mary is and making flower art. Seriously.
I mean, besides that and establishing the bedrock of four centuries of English supremacy, she wasn’t good for much I guess.
The eagle-eyed among you may have noticed how my expectations in the introduction don’t quite match the plot description. My biggest issue is that this film’s not at all what we were sold. Between the above historical liberties and the sidelining of Queen Elizabeth what we’re left with is a film where Queen Mary discovers the 1500s are a pretty shitty place for a woman ruler to survive. Well, either that or the true lesson of the film- best not to make door-slamming threats when speaking from a position of weakness. Because seriously, that’s pretty much her entire downfall.
Mary Queen of Scots is a very modern, very stageplay interpretation of a interesting history that may have been better presented in the film’s own trailers.
Mary Queen of Scots (2018) Drinking Game
Take a Drink: for each of the United Colors of Benetton (fun game, make a checklist before the movie starts)
Take a Drink: every time a man proves a treacherous cad
Take a Drink: every time Queen Elizabeth mopes or waffles or cries
Take a Drink: every time Queen Mary does something rash
Do a Shot: every time that backfires on her spectacularly