“Mary Queen of Scots”
Directed by Josie Rourke
I really wanted to love this film. It’s a great cast with a screenplay written from a respected piece of historical non-fiction, and shot in the Scottish Highlands, the most beautiful place on earth (they are – don’t talk back). I had some misgivings due to the director, Josie Rourke, having never helmed a film before. But, she’s a genius director at the National Theater in London, as was Kenneth Branagh, so maybe lightning could strike…?
Well, does it answer the question to say it’s really, really close to being a very good film? It is a colorful feast for the eyes, the exterior shots could be used to convince anyone to go to the Highlands (GO!), and the performances by Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie are as faithful to the source as can possibly be expected. What’s the issue then? Beau Willimon’s script, I’m afraid. It’s unbelievably plot heavy. As a result, the moments you wish would linger on Ronan or Robbie – and their relation to each other – fling past in an effort to tell the story…a story much less interesting than the people within it. I’d even go as far as to say it nudges up against a biopic in its hustlin’ hustlin’ hustlin’ to get to the end. Here she is arriving in Scotland, here she is dealing with an uprising, here she is falling in love, etc. Any ONE of the many plot points would’ve made a terrific film all by themselves. So, maybe pick one…or two…or, MAYBE three. As a result, and this will sound counter-intuitive, the film becomes quite dull once you realize this is the film’s M.O..
And, even MORE counter-intuitive is the fact that it utterly diminishes Ronan’s work. She’s terrific in films that meander…not speed. Robbie, who has much less screen time, doesn’t suffer as much (though I do wish we’d had some more of her living, instead of screaming at her court ministers). Listen, I’ll watch intently as they both read the ingredients of a can of Spam. Further, I think Ms. Ronan is in the discussion of five or six greatest film actors today. And in the film’s opening moments, there is reason to be very excited about the prospects of what’s to come from her Mary. But even an actor of her caliber is going to have a hard time infusing character and dramatic tension into constant reactions to plot devices. That’s not to say she isn’t good. She’s magnificent, and the fact that the closing scenes have any heft at all is due to her commitment to the role throughout. But one does feel cheated…like her best bits ended up on the floor. Something tells me if we saw a Director’s Cut, we might have been privy to a much more intimate performance. Ms. Robbie, on the other hand, is a worthy QE1. Equal parts bluster and self-doubt, Robbie gives us, in her limited time, a rare glimpse in to Elizabeth’s lack of surety. Her ability to dive so deep in to a character’s ugliness (both within and without) and where that comes from internally, has become her calling card. As such, I felt I knew Elizabeth better after this film than any prior QE1 film. Terrific work.
The less said about the male performances the better, except to state that they are very theatrical, and not at all on a par with the women. There are a couple of exceptions, most notably the underutilized Jack McCardle, who, at the very least, seemed to be in a film and not a stage production. Also, it seems we’re running out of actors from the UK who can play period and haven’t been in “Game of Thrones”. Every time I see one, it takes me out of the film, so fixed in my mind’s eye are their characters from that show (and others…most notably “The Last Kingdom”). It’s fleeting and probably unsolvable, but a distraction nonetheless.
In her feature directorial debut, Ms. Rourke does a very good job putting the pieces together. But perhaps a director with more experience would’ve taken ahold of the script a little more, crafted more emotional connection. I’m sure focus groups had something to do with the final product. Regardless, I hope she gets more projects. We need to see more of these stories told by women. History was written by men, and Hollywood is run by men…and none of us men have a clue how being in love, pregnant, spurned, or facing death is felt (and reacted to) by women.
John Mathieson’s cinematography is maybe the second best thing about the film (after the women’s performances). Take note…the film will really suffer if viewed on a small screen, since most of the film’s breathtaking moments are due to his photography of atmospheres, colors and Highland vistas.
Finally, it pains me to say it, but Max Richter’s score seems like an afterthought. It’s as if he had a bunch of Elizabethan-period themes stowed away for a rainy day and hurled them at the screen. Stereotypical, theatrical and not at all what we’ve come to expect from him. Bummer.
Okay, I’ve painted a much more bleak picture of this film than it probably deserves. It is good. It is worth watching. It is also HUGELY disappointing when one considers the assemblage of talent and the quality of the book it’s based on. <sigh>