Title: Mary Queen of Scots
Language: English, French, Scottish Gaelic
Genre: Biography, Drama, History
Director: Josie Rourke
Screenplay: Beau Willimon
based on the book “QUEEN OF SCOTS: THE TRUE LIFE OF MARY STUART” by John Guy
Music: Max Richter
Cinematography: John Mathieson
Ismael Cruz Cordova
Simon Russell Beale
Every once a while, the same historic causes célèbres receive a cinematic recount, aspiring to edify and allure new generations of audience, so, 47 years after Charles Jarrott’s MARY, QUEEN OF SCOTS (1971), where Vanessa Redgrave and Grenda Jackson are regally at each other’s throats, the beheading-foreshadowing story of two warring monarchical cousins has a re-interpretation from scribe Beau Willimon, drawing inspiration from John Guy’s book, and becomes the feature debut of Donmar Warehouse’s artistic director Josie Rourke.
Starring two red-hot young actresses par excellence of their generation, Rourke’s picture emphatically pares down the rivalry (inflamed by Catholic/Protestant divide and identity legitimacy) between Mary Stuart (Ronan), the Queen of Scotland and Elizabeth I (Robbie), the Queen of England and Ireland, instead, formulates a precious communion in their sisterhood and queenship, both have to inure intrigues and put-downs from subordinate courtiers and royalties just because they are women, one fails to provide an heir whereas the other has an heir, only to be outcasted from her own motherland, femininity has no advantages in reigning a kingdom, both Mary and Elizabeth’s defiance is glanced, proudly emblazoned, but history cannot be rewritten, albeit Rourke and her team makes good in their artistic license to refine the story more align to today’s ethos and perception.
For one thing, the film casts a wide net for ethnic actors playing key roles, Gemma Chan as Elizabeth Hardwick, Elizabeth’s confidant; Adrian Lester as Lord Thomas Randolph, the English ambassador in Scotland; German-Romania actress Maria Dragus as Mary’s close friend and lady-in-waiting Mary Fleming, and Puerto Rican actor Ismael Cruz Córdova as David Rizzio, a cross-dressing courtier who earns fondness from both Mary and her second husband Lord Darnley (Lowden), and only one is platonic. Thence, in a bold move, homosexuality has a haunting, albeit counter-factual presence in the story, a topical gesture to give Mary a well-earned openness and kindness that offsets her poor decision-making and guileless complexion.
A valiant Saoirse Ronan distinctively brings an air of modern dignity into a shady period machination with menacing bewhiskered men looking daggers at her majestic presence, and makes an antediluvian figure empathic and somehow relatable; Aussie beauty Maggie Robbie, one might consider too comely to play the unprepossessing queen, is aided immeasurably by the Oscar-nominated make-up team, and transforms herself into the character with stunning poise and ambiguity that reminds us to re-watch Cate Blanchett’s one-two punch divinity in Shekhar Kapur’s biopics. Among others, Jack Lowden is equally excellent to lend Lord Darnley both a dreamily irresistible quality and a drastic pathos for his ineffectual inscape that is head and shoulders above the rest one-note male growlers and schemers who are too insidious to indwell in this reviewer’s mind.
Production designer James Merifield and Oscar-nominated costume designer Alexandra Byrne husband the modest budget ($25 million) to sustain a low-key, subdued palette and atmosphere that downplays the Tudor tinsel but heightens the sizzling tensions built around the two queens, and DP John Mathieson wondrously captures Scotland’s dun topography in all its primeval authenticity and allure. Action sequence is symbolically skimpy, and all the momentum (after two gruesome murders leaving Mary denuded with any alliance) is led to a probably mythic meeting between the two queens, where they meet face to face for the first time (after Mary overcomes layers of veils), and level with each other all their feelings, regrets and agendas, it is as closest a reconciliation as one can fabricate without tampering with the ineluctable denouement.
referential entries: Shekhar Kapur’s ELIZABETH (1998, 8.2/10), ELIZABETH: THE GOLDEN AGE (2007, 5.7/10).