FILM REVIEW – MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS. With Saoirse Ronan, Margot Robbie, Jack Lowden, David Tennant, Martin Compston. Written by Beau Willimon. Directed by Josie Rourke. Rated R for some violence and sexuality. 124 minutes.
For those coming in late – or not up on their British history – here’s the backstory: After Henry VIII disempowered the Catholic Church in order to marry several times in pursuit of a male heir, the religious divide in England was severe. Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie) ascends to the throne, but Mary (Saoirse Ronan) has a potential valid claim as well, although Mary is Catholic. Should Elizabeth die without leaving an heir, Mary or her offspring could claim the British crown. For the powers-that-be around Elizabeth, allowing a Catholic monarch simply could not be allowed.
In this film version of MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS, that’s important to know, but it’s not the chief item on the agenda of first-time director Josie Rourke (a British stage director) or screenwriter Beau Willimon. Instead, the movie becomes a metaphorical study of 21st century identity politics which, even if you agree with their point of view, seems anachronistic in the 16th century. The result is a film that is a fine showcase for its two lead actresses but fails to satisfy.
The problem, the film tells us, is the patriarchy, the male nobility that restricts and even prevents Elizabeth or Mary from acting freely. This includes Mary’s second marriage (she was a young widow) to Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden) from whom she subsequently becomes estranged and may or may not have been the father of her son. To give it a modern twist, Henry is depicted as either gay or bisexual. Actions are taken despite the desires of the two queens, further complicated by a production design in which nearly all the male characters have beards and dress in black. A battle scene defies one’s ability to note what side anyone is on.
There’s also the ahistorical diversity of secondary cast members, which is a positive effort for most movies, but seems odd here, as it is highly unlikely there were black or Asian nobles in 16th century England. To cement the “sisterhood is powerful (if the men would get out of the way)” theme, the film even gives us a clandestine meeting between Elizabeth and Mary which has no historical basis.
Willimon, perhaps best known for creating the American version of “House Of Cards,” the Netflix series of contemporary political intrigue and backstabbing, was an inspired choice for the script. Unfortunately, in shoehorning modern issues into a religious power struggle more than four centuries ago, he loses control of the material. Rourke may be a talent to watch in the future – there are moments here, including the fictional confrontation scene between the two queens, that are striking – but, in the end, she seems less interested in the historical conflict than in making a point about the suppression of women.
“Mary Queen of Scots” is a missed opportunity to shed light on a key moment in history, using it instead to export contemporary concerns to the past.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His new novel, Father of the Bride of Frankenstein, will be released in January. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.