Mary Queen Of Scots (M18)
Starring Margot Robbie, Saoirse Ronan, Guy Pearce
Directed by Josie Rourke
How about this for a homecoming? In 1561, at the age of 19, Mary Queen of Scots (the utterly captivating Saoirse Ronan) returns to her native Scotland to reclaim her crown after the death of her husband, the teenage king of France.
Straightaway, the newly installed Catholic queen faces severely stiff resistance from her own toxic court of usurpers as well as instigators down south in Protestant England ruled by her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie).
“We are two sisters bound by womanhood, two princesses on the same island. I wish to make us a treaty of two queens,” Mary writes optimistically to her counterpart, wishing to get along. Fat hope, dear naive and innocent lass.
Unlike the flashy The Favourite about Queen Anne, this historical film — written by House of Cards creator Beau Willimon — is a more traditional regal movie that's as serious as a heart attack.
Amid a famous beheading, sinister plotting and all things confusingly treacherous here, you may require a few pints of booze as, say, Mary Queen of Scotch, to get over this dark drama. Especially when one poor chap, a gay court minstrel in Mary's inner circle, is stabbed like a human pin cushion by angry plotters in a brutal scene.
Here's the thing: you probably need to be a historian, a British royal family buff, a learned priest or an actual descendant in the extended family tree to really grasp the byzantine manoeuvring and murderous backstabbing in the castle intrigues and jostling for power displayed here.
The bottom line: everybody, essentially every lousy man here — including even her husband, father-in-law, and half-brother — wants to thwart Mary out of their own diabolical self-interest. “We are wise men servicing the whims of women,” one snake asserts his anti-woman prejudice.
They make Mary Queen Of Scots a fascinating and compelling watch if you're into vintage costumes (by Alexandra Byrne, who picked up an Oscar nod for her efforts), nasty palace politics and you dig the kinky idea that the iffy man Her Majesty marries — Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden) — likes to, er, sit on another dude's crotch at their wedding celebration.
But there are also conspiracies, public and private, which are basically bewildering to comprehend. Particularly if you cannot tell one duplicitous, indistinguishably bearded jock spouting a difficult Scottish accent from another in the candlelit darkness.
This movie is very grim, solemn and apparently also very loose with historical inaccuracies as to be downright preposterous to real Scots. Imagine Gemma Chan (Crazy Rich Asians) popping up in this ye olde ang moh tale as some kind of unlikely Chinese courtesan when her character, Bess of Hardwick, was, in real life, as white as snow.
Evidently, the debut female director here, Josie Rourke, a prominent Brit theatre practitioner, carries her zest for diversity a little bit too far by casting totally-out-of-place black and Asian actors.
There's also the matter of the tense meeting of rival queens in the film's best and most pivotal scene. In real life, this direct face-off never happened as only letters were exchanged between BFFs (Best Frenemies Forever), not glimpses or glances.
My main grouse, however, is the missing chunk of history the story chooses to skip after the real Mary fled to England and was put under castle-arrest for 19 years by her cuz. What the heck happened during that time?
But this flick has one tremendous saving grace. Actually, two splendid graces, because you just cannot take your eyes off main gal Ronan who's complex and commanding as Miss Braveheart here, and back-up royal Robbie struggling with indeterminate womanly jealousies and insecurities.
They are two queens separated by distance, distrust and demeanour — Elizabeth, ruling in cold, calculative comfort, is the direct opposite of her younger cousin, Mary, who's passionate, strong-minded and more feminine.
Just so you know, back in those power-grabbing days, both Catholics and Protestants truly hated each other. Mary's arrival on the same home ground threatens the reign of Elizabeth so much that one farcical measure is to urgently despatch an English suitor, Robert Dudley (Joe Alwyn, who’s also in The Favourite) — Elizabeth's own lover — to Mary in a failed attempt to keep the Scottish queen within England's control.
“Kill her hope. And hope that she may return to the comfort of the continent,” whispers Elizabeth's crafty adviser, William Cecil (Guy Pearce), warning her about Mary's regal ambitions.
By way of lineage, both women have legitimate claims to the tenuously unified throne in pre-United Kingdom in the way Manchester United and Manchester City are equally matched within the same city.
Elizabeth's English realm is more powerful with all the trappings of a richer, better organised and better dressed court of Protestant noblemen agitated by the return of Mary. Scotland, though, is a more primitive, visceral and untamable domain as its darkly-lit royal court is filled with shadowy, deceitful traitors who conspire against Mary as if they are insurgents from Game of Thrones.
The film keeps juxtaposing this stark contrast of English civilisation and Scottish machinations as a visual treat. Elizabeth, in powdered white face and a crazy orange wig, is a shoo-in as Johnny Depp's sister from Alice in Wonderland while Mary rides into battle in an austere dark dress looking like Joan of Arc channelling her inner librarian against barbarians.
As befits such a female-centric story made circa our time, both queens are also two very early Me-Too prototypes who are pressured to wed quickly and produce an heir by insidious men, a gender depicted as a lesser, weaker lifeform here of whom both women share a common contempt.
“Just be wary of these men. Their love is not the same as their respect,” Mary warns her ladies-in-waiting about falling too foolishly into love. It's ancient history by now, but in case, you're wondering who eventually wins this bout of making a baby monarch, here's a hint — Elizabeth I wasn't named the Virgin Queen for nothing.
At which point, you either love or hate the misandric nature of this film. I was ambivalent until the scene where the two queens meet. It's a terrific and powerful staging of a historically non-existent get-together as director Rourke cleverly uses layers of white cloth to peel away the veils of womanhood besieged and betrayed by the fallacies of men.
By the time Ronan's formidable Mary mocks her disappointing hubby and father of her child about his suspect manhood, “One minute makes not a man.” Guys, I was cheering for the ladies. (***1/2)