Mary Queen of Scots

[3 stars]

In a story with a titular queen, it was odd that it barely passed the Bechdel test. In some ways it makes sense, since a lot of the plot is about how the men were reacting to the women in power and scheming to control them. But I would have preferred a bit more about the women themselves.

Saoirse Ronan’s (The Seagull) Mary offers up a sense of strength and intelligence we don’t see in her counterpart, Elizabeth. Due to the script, Margot Robbie’s (Terminal) Elizabeth comes off weak and controlled. And the final moments for each woman hardened my sense of these assessments, though Elizabeth’s is open to interpretation. Given that that the director, Josie Rourke, runs the Donmar Warehouse I expected a bit more balance. But, then again, it was written by a man, Beau Willimon (The Ides of March) and it often feels that way.

There are important roles for men in this story as well, though it is heavily through the eyes of the two queens. Guy Pearce (Spinning Man), Adrian Lester (London Spy), and David Tennant (Jessica Jones) in Elizabeth’s court stand out nicely. Pearce for his weaselly way and Tennant for his chilling Rasputin for the Masses delivery. On Mary’s side of the water, Jack Lowden (Dunkirk), Ismael Cruz- Córdova (Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk), and James McArdle (Man in an Orange Shirt) are the stand-outs, each for different reasons. Lowden for his craveness, Cruz- Córdova for the layers he adds to Mary and the history (true or not), and McArdle for his believable reversals.

As costume dramas go, this one is beautifully appointed and well filmed. It feels right and real, even if more than a little sanitized. There is nothing spectacularly new in either aspect, but neither do they impede the story. The production values are fairly invisible, which is one of the higher compliments you can make for such a film.

There is a sense of reflection on our current times in the plot. It isn’t as strong as I’d have liked. In fact, it is a little hard to tell if it is more about seeing it through the lens of #metoo and current politics or if it was intended. I honestly suspect it is more about the viewer than the script. There are a few interesting revelations about Mary’s court and life, or at least some nice complications and dark mirrors. However, my knowledge of that era isn’t exhaustive enough to know for sure what was accurate as opposed to dramatically intriguing.

If you like period dramas or are fascinated by this moment in history when two women were in control of England and Scotland and how that inflected their histories, make time for this. The performances are subtle and layered, and the pace of the story will sweep you along. I wish they’d dialed down the hype a little as I’m not sure it lives up to the marketing promise, but it certainly is a solid film that will see at least some technical Oscar nods, if nothing else.

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