Bil’s rating (out of 5): B.5. United Kingdom/USA, 2018. Focus Features, Perfect World Pictures, Working Title Films. Screenplay by Beau Willimon, based on the book Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart by John Guy. Cinematography by John Mathieson. Produced by Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Debra Hayward. Music by Max Richter. Production Design by James Merifield. Costume Design by Alexandra Byrne. Film Editing by Chris Dickens. Academy Awards 2018.
Raised in France for her own safekeeping, the now widowed Scottish queen Mary (Saoirse Ronan) returns to her homeland where her brother has been reigning as regent. Her ambition lies beyond her own kingdom as she plans to get rid of that pesky Protestant bastard Elizabeth (Margot Robbie) and take over England as its rightful Catholic queen, but there are complications: her second husband is more trouble than he’s worth, and Elizabeth is a hell of a lot better at the game of thrones than Mary thought. The main purpose with this latest cinematic rendering of this famous royal standoff, previously filmed with Vanessa Redgrave in 1971 and covered in Shekhar Kapur’s second Elizabeth film (among many others), is to rehabilitate the reputation of Mary as the “queen of hearts”, usually presented as a flighty seductress who bent history her way by manipulating men with her feminine wiles. Clearing this up is a worthy cause, but director Josie Rourke doesn’t know how to modernize a story that just can’t be modernized, so she casts ethnically diverse actors whose historical accuracy is laughable (and, in suggesting without any irony that people of colour were treated as equals by the English any time in history is something of an insult) and thinking that putting Mary in Joan of Arc armour will compensate for the lack of any juicy drama before our heroine paints herself into a deadly corner. Rourke’s forward thinking filmmaking, which also includes gay characters who feel as manipulated a part of her It’s a Small World project, would be acceptable if the film was made with any sense of bent humour or eccentricity (it’s not like she has the skill for Visconti’s ironic command when he turns a massacre of Nazi officers into a gay orgy in The Damned). The anachronisms undercut whatever attempt is being made to compensate the subject for Mary’s historical mistreatment, and are not compensated by any dramatic conflict in the narrative or the characters in the face of the film’s near-fetishistic obsession with victimhood; Mary can give a good fiery speech but she can never get anything done, and Elizabeth is constantly baffled about what to do or say whenever the men around her challenge her authority. There are a small handful of good moments, but mostly you’re watching a tin-eared version of a story that’s been done better so many times, and featuring actors who have been better in so many other roles, that it’s not even worth checking out.