Monday, December 24, 2018

Mary Queen of Scots

People talk about how they don't like when movies manipulate them, but what they usually mean is that they don't like seeing the strings with which they're being manipulated, and I wonder what they'll think of Mary Queen of Scots, because its strings are right out in the open but it's probably useful to see them. As with any movie trying to compress years of real-life events into two hours, Mary takes a few liberties to simplify storytelling and make the lessons of history more directly relevant to the present day, and the ways in which it is obvious prevent the film from seeming disingenuous. Yeah, it's not exactly how that happened, but once you've accepted this, you can examine what the filmmakers are choosing to focus on and why - and then you've got a movie that has a fair amount to say about the present rather than mooring its issue in the past.

I'm somewhat curious about how much representing certain characters as people of color in the film is done to ground it for modern audiences and how much is historically accurate, in particular. I think it's effective in terms of making sure a viewer doesn't see what's happening in the film as just "rich/powerful white person problems", and I've seen a lot of interesting pushback online lately about how the lily-white versions of European history we've been fed by film and television are not true representations - travelers and traders would settle down in far-off places, and the Roman Empire made a point of deploying soldiers in distant parts of the empire so that their loyalties wouldn't be divided (so, yes, Africans would wind up in Britain). It's a bit jarring at times, and I did sometimes wonder if the English ambassador to Scotland being black was meant as a slight or not. Ultimately, though, I mostly just liked Adrian Lester's and Gemma Chan's performances.

It's a tricky thing, though - the recent Robin Hood and King Arthur movies tried to do this and it sometimes came off as neither authentic nor useful. This is, however, a much better film than those in a whole lot of ways, so it's not surprising that it handles the challenges of trying to connect with a broader audience despite the history of that audience's country not always having a place for them (whether "history" is treated as actual events or the way we study it).

Mary Queen of Scots

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 21 December 2018 in Coolidge Corner Theatre #2 (first-run, DCP)

There's an interesting sort of irony at the center of Mary Queen of Scots that the filmmakers appear to have a difficult resolving - that the monarch of the title is in many ways brought low by her own ambition, but it is sometimes difficult to fully grasp that because there is a great deal of focus on how such ambition would not have been nearly so dangerous for a man in a similar position. Of course, I'm saying that as a man; a woman is more likely to clearly see those facets as linked than countering each other. That paradox is in many ways the strength of the film; it makes Mary a complex human being rather than just a morality tale, and an intriguing historical figure for how these factors interact.

Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan) had already had an eventful life by the time she returned to her native Scotland at the age of 18 - sent to live in France as a girl for fear that she would be endangered as a Catholic in a Scotland that was becoming increasingly Protestant, married to the heir to France's throne at 15 and widowed three years later - and assumed her position as Queen, her half-brother James (James McArdle) having served as regent. Mary also has a claim to the throne of England held by Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie), who attempts to counter by sending her paramour Robert Dudley (Joe Alwyn) to court her. Mary spurns him and marries Henry Darnley (Jack Lowden), believing that producing an heir will strengthen her claim to the English throne, especially since Elizabeth has chosen not to marry and have a child of her own. This may have been the best course, as it seems every man in Mary's life, whether brother, husband, or adviser, fancies himself as the one who should truly be in charge.

Saoirse Ronan is at that age where the people casting a movie can convince themselves that she's believable as a teenager on-screen, but if her casting is meant to accentuate Mary's youth, it doesn't quite work that way. Her Mary is so ferocious in her dealings with the older men who surround her and authoritative in general that the moments meant to emphasize just how little practical experience she has in certain areas work best in retrospect, when the audience is replaying the film in their heads and realizing that her confidence in those scenes is not truly earned. It's insidiously clever work by Ronan and director Josie Rourke to bury the ingenue material despite the fact that the film is, on the whole, very sympathetic to Mary; she comes off as a combination of abrasive, charming, enlightened and entitled that not only gives her personality those human contradictions but allows her to have a foot in both modern times and her own present.

Full review at EFC.

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