Might make you wonder why you’re watching it
I had kind of a curious experience watching Mary Queen of Scots (Josie Rourke). It’s a finely acted, polished and well-designed intelligent movie, but it never manages to establish any kind of purpose. There’s nothing significant or idiosyncratic about it, and so watching it feels like attending a lecture for a class you’ve already completed. What are we doing here?
Still, there’s plenty to be admired. Incensed viewers concerned with the verisimilitude of a story that’s been told a thousand times over have lobbed complaints about the director and screenwriter’s (Beau Willimon) decisions to alter history, but movies always play fast and loose with the rules. Milos Forman messed around when he told the story of Amadeus (1984) and that’s generally considered a masterpiece. It’s easy to admire Saorsie Ronan, committed and compelling as Mary Stuart and Margot Robbie bringing a kind of restrained psychopathy to Queen Elizabeth I. These performances, and Rourke’s controlled direction, make for a fine watch, but ultimately Mary Queen of Scots suffers a familiar flaw in biopics and historical pieces today: if the movie wants to say something, its message is snuffed out by its own attempts not to offend anybody too much.
The story goes that the defiant Mary Stuart, widowed at 18, is pushing against the pressure that she must remarry. Expressing this defiance, Ronan is always poised and sure of herself. This could be the actor’s fault or the way she’s been directed, but there’s rarely a sense that Mary is anything other than wise beyond her years and profoundly progressive. Determined to paint her as the good guy, the movie seems unwilling to give her any other characteristics.
Hopefully, then, the villain, Queen Elizabeth I, is the more interesting character. Plotting her takeover of Scotland, Elizabeth refuses peace talks with Mary and the two butt heads over their rightful claim to the throne. Margot Robbie is a terrific actor, whose career has seen her gain more screen time with each role and remind us she was stealing scenes from actors like Leonardo DiCaprio as if it were no big thing. Her role as Elizabeth is minimal and restrained, mostly requiring her to seethe in silence or weep at the sight of her small pox. It isn’t to say Robbie is wrong for the role, more that the role is wrong for her. Why would you take Margot Robbie and tell her to sit quietly? She’s great when she loses it, showcasing the white-trash antics of Tonya Harding or the unhinged Naomi in Wolf of Wall Street. Tell her to play poised royalty and it’s like buying fireworks just to see what happens when you soak them in the sink.
But the movie does have genuine, sit-up-in-your-seat moments. Mary Stuart lived a hell of a life, and Rourke makes sure the brutal and erotic stuff aren’t just footnotes. When her second husband is found out to be homosexual, his treatment is stark and upsetting. Mary talks sex with her friends and posits herself as someone who desires more than just a husband for show. These points and the way they’re filmed do conjure up the rebellious, fiery spirit of the real Mary Stuart, but they are few and far.
It seems more and more today that biopics shy away from presenting their subjects in ways that challenge popular or protected figures, so that they be reconsidered as flawed human beings. Forman depicted Mozart (Tom Hulce) as a louse and an egomaniac because it was what the story called for. Audiences were critical of Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)because it shied away from Freddie’s tumultuous personal life or his difficult nature. Mary Magdalene (2018), a little like Mary Queen of Scots, treaded so carefully around its subject that the movie barely seemed to be about anything. Every now and then a movie like I, Tonya (2018) or BlackKklansman (2018) will appear to show movies can still critique history and challenge how audiences think of a historical figure, but there’s undoubtedly a trend towards safe, unchallenging and ultimately unengaging biopics.
It’s hard to recommend Mary Queen of Scots. For history buffs, the deviations from truth might be irksome and for everyone else, there’s not a whole lot going on. If you follow the careers of two of the most talented actors in movies today, then see them here in a middling picture that doesn’t quite utilise their talents.