January 5, 2019 – This is the second movie about British royal intrigue I have seen in the last year, which, frankly is two more than I really wanted to see, but these are the sorts of movies you have to see in order to vote on movie awards. The other one, by the way, was “The Favourite,” which is the better movie of the two.
This is at least the third movie about this subject, with this same title, by the way, and perhaps not the best one. The others were released in 1971 and 2013. The 1971 film (the one with a proper comma after Mary in its title) starring renowned actresses Vanessa Redgrave and Glenda Jackson, seems to be the one critics like best. It garnered a number of Golden Globe and Academy awards and nominations. The 2018 film, coming out very late in 2018, got no Golden Globe nominations, but it may get some Oscar nominations.
Movie critics darling Saoirse Ronan (“Lady Bird”) stars as Queen Mary Stuart of Scotland. The opening scene of the movie foreshadows her execution years later, followed by an immediate flashback 26 years earlier to her landing on a Scottish beach near Leith in 1561 after years spent in France. She returns for the first time in years, as a widow, to take up the throne she inherited as a child.
She immediately encounters resistance to her rule from her half-brother, James, Earl of Moray (played by James McArdle of “On the Road”) who had ruled in her absence, and John Knox (David Tennant of the “Doctor Who” TV series) leader of the Reformation movement in Scotland, and founder of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland. He regards women as inferior and chafes under the rule of a woman, especially a Catholic one.
As heir to the royal line of Stuarts, she is considered by Catholics, at least, to have a legitimate claim to the title of Queen of England and Scotland. Her claim poses a threat to her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie of “I, Tonya”). In this film, Queen Elizabeth is portrayed as acting like a male ruler who has decided not to marry. She distrusts the motives of most of those in royal courts in both London and Edinburgh.
Queen Mary, on the other hand, is portrayed as a victim, betrayed by her family and most trusted friends and advisors, who are all seeking power for themselves. Mary comes across as relatively selfless, concerned mainly for Scotland. I gather from a cursory review of the history of this period that Mary was probably not as blameless as she seems in this movie, and the politics of the time are far more complicated than this simple Catholic versus Protestant battle for power.
Queen Mary decides to take a husband, with the intention of producing an heir to the throne of England. Since Elizabeth is the last of her line and will produce no heir, Mary's offspring will one day rule both Scotland and England. She chooses an Englishman, her first cousin Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden of “Dunkirk”) as her husband. In an odd sex battle scene, she manages to get pregnant by Darnley, even though he is gay.
Queen Mary's marriage to a Catholic, along with the birth of their child, James, another heir to the throne, helps to stir up a lot of trouble between the Catholic and Protestant factions in both Scotland and England. Queen Elizabeth, following the advice of William Cecil (Guy Pearce of “Iron Man 3”) gives the go ahead to support a revolt against Queen Mary in Scotland. The revolt fails when Queen Mary's forces rout the opposition.
But Mary's power would soon be eroded by palace intrigues, resulting in the brutal murder of her private secretary David Rizzio (Ismael Cruz Cordova of “Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk”) who was also her husband's lover, followed by the murder of her husband, and her forced marriage to her husband's murderer. This is all the result of palace schemers persuading those closest to Queen Mary to betray her. These ugly murders, done in the name of God and country, are pretty depressing.
Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie both give strong performances as the dueling queens. Ronan specializes in playing victims, usually ones with little emotional range, but in this performance she shows a wide range of emotions. Robbie gives a nuanced performance as a Queen who feels herself forced into difficult, morally questionable decisions. This film skips over the entire question of whether or not Mary was guilty of supporting the 1586 Babington Plot to assassinate Queen Elizabeth.
There is a speech by Queen Elizabeth in the film in which she wonders why there is all this pointless fuss about the royal succession when she and Queen Mary will be both be dead some day. That is a good question. Why are we watching this again? This movie is not very lively. It rates a C+.
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