Mary Queen of Scots (2018) Review
ANOTHER SIDE, ANOTHER STORY
Within many of the movie genres of cinematic tales, the subgenre of the commonly named “period pieces” have always been produced throughout the years of filmmaking; spinning different stories that place in “another time” and “another place” for the modern world. These particular feature films, which span multiple genres (i.e adventure, comedy, horror, thriller, fantasy, etc.), can also speak to historical reference in both a general sense of timeline era (i.e England’s Victorian era or the American Revolution) as well as vague period era (i.e the Middle Ages or the “roaring 20s”). Regardless, a heavy emphasis on the film’s time period is a crucial element of the movie’s narrative setting from its historical references and influences in various categories, including religious belief, political structures, society order / stasis, and costume attires. Thus, these period piece cinematic productions cast a very wide net across the theatrical features that Hollywood has produced over the years, including 1959’s ancient world epic Ben-Hur (as well as 1956’s The Ten Commandments), 1972’s and 1974’s mafia gangster masterpieces of the Godfather and the Godfather Part II, 1997’s sweeping tale romance and loss in Titanic, to 2012’s lavishing story of love and betrayal in Anna Karenina just to name a few. Now, Focus Features and directorial Josie Rourke present the latest Hollywood endeavor of a historical costume period piece with the movie Mary Queen of Scots. Does this shed new light on the famous “Queen of Scots” character or is it just another humdrum / adequate of motion picture from current Hollywood?
At a young age, Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan) was sent to live in France (a Catholic nation) from Scotland as the religious beliefs of the Catholic and Protestant faiths battle for control of the country. After being married to the heir apparent man of French royalty (and widowed several years later), Mary returns to Scotland, which is Scotland (under the Protestant religion faith) that is governed by her half-brother James Stuart (James McArdle) and reclaims the throne as “Queen of Scots”. With Mary’s return to Scotland, her cousin Queen Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie) sees a potential threat to the English Crown, with Mary passively urging (via letters) Elizabeth to name her successor to England’s sovereignty. Each Queen beholds her “sister” in both fear and admiration, but their love for each other turns into a rivalry as these two female regents (in a masculine world of kings) must decide how to play the game of ruling their respective countries in marriage versus independence. Unfortunately, as betrayers, conspiracies, and open civil war rebellion spark between England and Scotland, Mary must contend with establishing her ruling dominion by securing a heir for Scotland (and potentially England), while Elizabeth’s counselors and advisors insight rumored whispers of doubt within her ear and of her cousin’s ambition for England’s crown.
THE GOOD / THE BAD
What can I say…. I’m a huge sucker for costume period piece dramas. Doesn’t matter if it’s a motion picture or a television series, it’s historical piece of some kind…. I’m definitely watching it. Of course, there’s a lot more to it than just costumes wardrobes on its various characters. Like everything, there’s always has to be a good story, great writing, a decent production budget for quality, and some good acting. Believe me…I’ve seeing my fair share of bad period piece dramas. That being said, there’s something about costume period pieces (be it movies or TV) that I like. I can’t put my finger on it, but I like them. As I mentioned above, costume period pieces can span many different film genres and don’t really have to Of course, I have plenty of some of my personal favorites period pieces that immediately come to mind, including Peter Jackson’s Middle-Earth trilogies (yes, I would consider The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit as fantasy period pieces), 2000’s Gladiator, 1939’s Gone with the Wind, 2013’s The Great Gatsby (I do love Baz Luhrmann’s iteration of the story), 2005’s Kingdom of Heaven, 1992’s The Last of the Mohicans, and 2005’s Pride & Prejudice.
This brings me to talking about Mary Queen of Scots, a 2018 film and the latest Hollywood production film that takes a cinematic look at historical figure in costume drama. Of course, the film’s subject (i.e Queen Elizabeth and Mary Stewart) is what definitely intrigued me about this movie as I do remember hearing some “buzz” about this movie during its pre-release months. This also includes the film’s movie trailers, which I occasionally saw during my weekly movie theater outings whenever I saw a more “period” drama feature or a non-blockbuster / non-animated movie. In addition, the film’s cast (i.e Ronan and Robbie) is what also intrigued me about the movie, especially since the narrative seemed like it was gonna be more focused on Mary’s story versus the more traditional of Elizabeth storytelling. So, I was geared up to see Mary Queen of Scots when it was planned to be released on December 7th, 2018 (in the US) for its theatrical run. Unfortunately, the movie never came to any of my local movie theaters around, so I missed the opportunity to see the feature when it initially came out. So, this is why I’m doing my review for the movie so late as I finally got a chance to see Mary Queen of Scots (I bought the 4K UHD Blu-Ray) and had a chance to watch it. What did I think of it? While the movie stumbles in trying to “unload” its narrative within a feature film runtime, Mary Queen of Scots is a decent Hollywood costume endeavor that excels in its technical presentation and in its strong performances from its two leads actresses. It’s by no means a terrible movie as there’s plenty to like about it, but there’s definitely could’ve improvements made on this historical costume Elizabethan drama.
Mary Queen of Scots is directed by Josie Rourke, whose previous credible works include British theatre in several theatrical stage productions for majority of her professional career, and makes her feature film directorial debut with this movie project. Given her background in the theatrical arts of stage plays, Rourke seems like a very good choice in trying to bring a costume period piece drama such as Mary Queen of Scots to life on the silver screen. To her credit, she succeeds in a lot of areas, which is a good thing (trust me…I’ve seeing plenty of movies from first time directors end up horribly bad) and does manage to get a lot of major plot points addressed and ironed out throughout the course of the movie. At the feature’s core, Rourke showcases the political battlefield of the era, providing enough references (in both Mary and Elizabeth) in how two royal female monarchs must try to outwit and survive in the servant underlings that swirl around for personal ambitions and / or ulterior motives. It’s definitely a “tale as old as time”, especially in the world of kings and queens and of governing sovereign nations, but Mary Queen of Scots succeeds in delving into the story of Mary Stuart, which is in contrast to the more commonplace narrative spotlight on Queen Elizabeth I. In addition, the film’s screenplay, which was adapted from the book “Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart” by author John Guy and penned by Beau Willimon, provides plenty of story in accounting Mary Stuart’s life and times during this particular age rather than just showcasing her as a somewhat “villain” towards Elizabeth I in the history books. By doing this, we (the viewers) get a better understanding of the “Queen of Scots”, shedding light on her situation and struggles as she contends with ruling over Scotland, marriage, producing an heir, and dealing with those around her (be it good or bad). Rourke seems also to keep up on those ques and definitely shows that throughout the feature, especially in how much we (the viewers) sympathize with several of Mary’s sticky situations. Heck, a lot of the story told about Mary I personally didn’t know, so I was quite engaged with the feature’s narrative. Of course, I know how the story ends, but it was neat to see how the narrative gets there in the film, especially from a different and almost unexplored view point.
In terms of theatrical presentation, Mary Queen of Scots is a beautiful and well-made feature film that definitely is great costume period piece in how the movie’s overall look and feel. For sure, the costume in the movie are great and, while there not super lavishing / stylish, they do fit perfectly within the feature’s timeline of the Elizabethan era. Thus, I really have to mention the costume designs by Alexandra Byrne are quite good (definitely worth the nominations for Best Costume Designs at the 91st Academy Awards). The same goes for the hair / make-up team on the movie, which are too numerous to name them all, but everyone involve did some great work on their respective parts on their various characters, especially in the Mary and Elizabeth. Additionally, the production designs by James Merifield and set decorations by Gina Cromwell are great and definitely bring a sense of authenticity when establishing the various locations (castle, palaces, interior halls and rooms, etc.) in the feature to life. Even the cinematography by John Mathieson, while not super fantastic, is still a cut above the rest and provides some great sequences of dramatic poise throughout the feature from beginning to end. Lastly, the film’s score, which was composed by Max Richter, is also good and is definitely “in tune” (melodically speaking) with the film’s on-screen visuals and storytelling. All in all, the presentation of Mary Queen of Scots is really good and, even if you don’t particular care for the movie, there’s no denying how beautiful it all looks.
Unfortunately, Mary Queen of Scots somewhat fails to deliver a wholesome viewing experience and isn’t quite as dynamically palpable as it wants to be. What went wrong? Well, the big thing that the movie fails to do is in explaining (in full) everything that happens throughout the course of the feature. What do I mean? Basically, the film, which has a runtime of 125 minutes (two hours and five minutes) has a lot to unpack in examining the life of Mary Stuart and how she rises and falls within her Scotland monarchy and all of the players (characters) that come in and out of her life. In truth, it’s sort of hard to keep track of who’s who and who’s allegiance is to her, to Elizabeth, or (in some cases) to their own secretive agenda. This is where the movie stumbles as Rourke (as well as Willimon) have a hard time in trying to explain everything within the allotted time given for the film. Thus, for a story like this, I would’ve liked to seeing Mary Queen of Scots turned into a min-series or a TV series on something like HBO or Netflix. If this was so (hypothetically speaking), then this would give more time for the story to unfold, allowing certain events (i.e be it plot points and / or character beats) enough time to be expanded upon in a more natural way. Unfortunately, since this is not the case, Mary Queen of Scots really rushes through a lot of its events by hitting all the right plot device storytelling points, but never takes the time to full exam these particular scenes or characters. In short, everything in the movie seems rushed.
Coinciding with that notion, the film’s screenplay, while interesting in exploring the story behind the infamous “Queen of Scots” historical character, fails to provide insight into certain aspects of the feature, despite the narrative “ripe” for the picking in English history of this particular time period. There’s a lot to explore, but the screenplay doesn’t do deep into certain things and instead chooses for something more simplistic. Thus, like I said above, the film’s story is rather intriguing, but skims the surfaces in many crucial areas, which is a bit disappointing. Additionally, the movie’s overall structure and narrative progression is somewhat conventional for both a bio pic drama and a historical period piece. What I mean is that the feature follows a somewhat predictable well-trodden narrative path that many other historical bio-pics have done before. Personally, I kind of had an idea of where the story was gonna do without many surprises, despite Rourke’s intentions to interject a certain “shock” twist. To be honest, there were a few scenes that I thought to myself …. “haven’t I seeing this before elsewhere” in a kind of TV / Film “Déjà vu” vibe.
Of course (almost to be expected), the film allows features several cited historical inaccuracies, especially considering those between Mary and Elizabeth, their relationship with one another, and how the movie portrayals certain characters. Naturally, much like a plethora of Hollywood biographical movies being released, there is some degree that the film’s team (i.e Rourke and Willimon) take certain poetic liberties in crafting Mary Queen of Scots. Again, this is somewhat to be expected in trying to make cinematic presentation of something based on a true story; spicing up the narrative in order to take a movie entertainment stance on its source material. Thus, some viewers might be bothered by the film’s historical inaccuracies, while others might overlook it. To me, it didn’t bother me as much and I kind of figured that one or two scenes seemed a bit “manufactured” than actual concrete historical events.
The cast of Mary Queen of Scots has plenty of recognizable faces from the selection of actors and actresses enlisted to play these historical real-life characters. Collectively, the acting talents from all are solid and are rather quite good, but where they falter is in the feature’s overall characterization of their respective counterparts (again, due to the constraint runtime of a theatrical motion picture). At the head of the cast (and headlining the movie) are the film’s two lead characters of Mary Stuart (Queen of Scots) and Queen Elizabeth I (Queen of England), who are played respectfully by actresses Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie. Of the two, Ronan, known for her roles in Lady Bird, Brooklyn, and The Lovely Bones, gets the more prominent and juicer role of the feature; finding the material given to her interesting and allowing her acting ability to take hold of the material and really make the character her own. As stated, the character of the “Queen of Scots” has always been portrayed as more of a villainous character (with Elizabeth being more the noble / honorable queen of the two). This movie sort of switches that role and Ronan dives into the frame of mind, portraying Mary with a wide range of emotions (joy, anger, sad, empathy, compassion, etc.) more so than any other iteration has done before. Personally, I loved Ronan in this movie and definitely did a better job in this movie than what she did in Lady Bird (and she won a Golden Globe for that particular role).
Given the narrative story of the feature, which is more focused on Mary, the character of Elizabeth gets reduced to a more largely secondary role; seeing the prominent “Virgin Queen” in various sequences as she tries to wrestle with the struggle of concerning her cousin (Mary) with the rest of her advisors on the privy council. Naturally, Robbie, known for her roles in Suicide Squad, Focus, and Goodbye Christopher Robin, is good in the role and (like Ronan) gives a solid performance in the feature. Unfortunately, since Elizabeth isn’t the main focus, her storyline isn’t quite as developed as previous cinematic iteration of England’s most famous royal monarch as she comes off as a bit more underdeveloped of the two. To me, I kind of sort of guess that would be the case with the movie, but Mary Queen of Scots could’ve benefited for a bit more “understanding” of Queen Elizabeth in this movie. Thus, despite Robb’s acting (and her full costume / hair and make-up appearance), her version of Elizabeth is not as captivating as say actress Helen Mirren in HBO’s mini-series Elizabeth I or actress Cate Blanchett in 1998’s Elizabeth and 2007’s Elizabeth: The Golden Age.
The rest of the film’s cast is in more supporting roles to the film’s lead characters of Mary and Elizabeth and (much like what I said above) the characters, despite the acting talents of those playing them, aren’t fully developed beyond what’s mostly established by them when they first introduced in the feature. This includes actor Guy Pearce (Memento and L.A. Confidential) as Elizabeth’s advisor William Cecil, actor Joe Alwyn (The Favourite and Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk) as Elizabeth’s counselor / lover Robert Dudley, actor Jack Lowden (Dunkirk and A United Kingdom) as Mary’s second husband Henry Stewart / Lord Darnley, actor Brendan Coyle (Downton Abbey and Me Before You) as Henry’s father / Earl of Lennox Matthew Stewart, actor James McArdle (Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens and ’71) as Mary’s brother James, Earl of Moray (regent ruler of Scotland), actor Martin Compston (Red Road and Doomsday) as Mary close commanding military confidant Lord Bothwell, actor Ismael Cruz Cordova (The Catch and Ray Donovan) as Mary’s close confidant / musician player David Rizzio, actor Adrian Lester (Hustle and Primary Colors) as Elizabeth’s ambassador Lord Thomas Randolph, actress Gemma Chan (Crazy Rich Asians and Captain Marvel) as Elizabeth’s close friend / confidante Elizabeth “Bess” Hardwick, and actor David Tenant (Doctor Who and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) as the protestant cleric John Knox. Like I said, all of these actors and actresses give solid performance in their respective roles, but the film (due to how its managed) never allows many of them to be fleshed out / well-rounded characters beyond being two-dimensional plot device that surround either Mary or Elizabeth. This is where the movie should’ve been transformed into a mini-series or television series would’ve been beneficial.
The story of Mary Stuart takes center stage and uncovers the “other side” of the famous “Queen of Scots” historical character in the movie Mary Queen of Scots. Director Josie Rourke latest film sees the character of Mary Stuart in a completely new cinematic light, devoting a full-length feature film in shedding light on her side story as oppose to the more traditional Queen Elizabeth’s version. The movie does fumble in its storytelling (rushing the narrative of characters and events) and a few weak screenplay sequences (including a few made-up / inaccuracies), but does succeeds in its overall presentation (i.e. settings, production value, costumes, make-up) and some great performances from both Ronan and Robbie. To me, I liked this movie. Yes, I agree it could’ve been better and definitely could’ve benefited if it was on a different media medium than a feature film, but I did find the movie enjoyable and entertaining, especially Ronan’s performance. However, the movie isn’t quite as good (nor theatrically cinematically put together) as to some of the other Elizabethan theatrical representations (see HBO’s 2005 miniseries or the two Cate Blanchet feature films). Thus, my recommendation for this film is a solid “Rent It” as it’s something to see and watch at least once, especially to movie aficionados or fans of period piece dramas. In the end, while it may not be the greatest historical period piece that Hollywood has recently churned out, but Mary Queen of Scots endeavors as a decent / well-made costume piece drama, highlighting the “another side, another story” aspect to the historical character Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots.
3.6 Out of 5 (Rent It)
Released On: December 7th, 2018
Reviewed On: March 6th, 2019
Mary Queen of Scots is 125 minutes long and is rated R for some violence and sexuality
Great review as always. I thought this film was kinda disappointing, not nearly as stylish as the promotion made it out to be, and felt kinda empty, in a narrative sense.
Thanks for the comment. I agree with you on some of those points, but I still liked the movie. Like I said, a story like this should’ve been moved to a TV mini-series or a TV series (to fully explore a narrative like this).
Thanks for the review Jason, and the comment SAT. This doesn’t seem like one we’d care to see in the theater. Will take the recommendation to rent it.