As unpleasant as it may be for some people, think back to when you were in high school. Specifically, remember when you were in your high school history class. Remember those days when your history teacher told you that the class was going to watch a movie for the next couple of days, which excited you because you wouldn’t be doing work for a bit, but you were bored out of your skulls because the movie was a dull and drab history lesson that you had to take notes on or write an essay about?
I bring that up because most movies that retell historical events usually fall into that category. They’re usually very dull and appeal to a very small demographic of history buffs that eat those kinds of movies up. If you were to ask me why those movies can be such a slog to get through, it has to do with what the goal of the movie is, conceptually speaking. Does the movie want to be historically accurate, or entertaining? We all know that Braveheart isn’t historically accurate in the slightest, but we don’t care about that because the movie is a blast to watch and Mel Gibson gives a great performance. Then there are movies like The Post, which is a lifeless snorefest that while it is historically accurate, isn’t entertaining at all. Meryl Streep performance be damned. Remember, movies are a part of the entertainment industry. Their purpose is to entertain audiences at the end of the day.
I feel that Mary Queen of Scots can’t decide on whether it wants to be entertaining or historically accurate. There are times when it tries to be both and succeeds, but plenty of times where it tries and fails.
Mary Queen of Scots
Director: Josie Rourke
Release Date: December 7, 2018 (Limited release); December 21, 2018 (Wide release)
If you have no idea who Mary Stuart or Queen Elizabeth I are, go find a book about both of these women and study up. While you’re at it, pick up books on the history of Scotland, why the Protestants and Catholics hate each other, and a book about the history of the monarchy of the United Kingdom. If you didn’t do all of that, you are going to flounder as you watch Mary Queen of Scots because the movie does not care if you know about these historical figures. It assumes that you know everything about the two women and never stops to debrief the audience on what the hell is happening.
On one hand, I can respect that the movie doesn’t spend any of its time trotting out a random duke to provide an explanation about how succession works in the British empire and the complicated relationship that Mary had with her cousin Elizabeth, but if you have no clue before you go and see the movie, then there’s almost no point to seeing it. I knew about 60% of the events that took place during Mary Queen of Scots, and even I had a tough time following along with just what was happening. There should be a huge sign in front of each theater showing it saying “For history buffs only” since they’re the only ones that can follow along with what’s happening.
It’s almost physically impossible to enjoy this movie unless you’re familiar with the historical figures to some degree or the concepts that the movie discusses. Even then, these aren’t the easiest concepts for most people to wrap their heads around. Even people that know that subject can have a tough time actually explaining it to someone. Out of curiosity, I decided to ask our UK writer Sian how she would explain the line of succession to a layman, but even as a Brit she admitted that it was incredibly complicated and hard to explain to someone that isn’t already familiar with it. So how the bloody hell is a general audience supposed to understand it?
But let’s say that, theoretically, you know about all of the key figures that were involved in Mary Stuart’s life and you were ready to watch the movie. What would you be able to expect from it? Well first, this is almost a straight retelling of Mary’s life. She returns to Scotland after living abroad in France and wants to reclaim the throne for herself, which she does easily. The problem comes with her cousin Elizabeth, who fears Mary’s legitimacy to the throne of England. If Mary is able to sire an heir and Elizabeth can’t, the line of succession falls to Mary and Mary’s child would become the new king or queen of both England and Scotland. With that you have civil war, treachery, and plenty of underhanded tactics in order to instill peace to both England and Scotland. Mostly in Scotland though because there’s a Protestant rebellion against Mary that’s orchestrated by a group of nobles that pops up every now and then.
It’s better to approach Mary Queen of Scots on a piece by piece basis. Even if the overall story is a disjointed mess of plot threads and betrayals that come out of left field, the movie can still work if the individual elements are sound. Thankfully, they do. The movie itself is visually stunning to look at. There are several beautiful landscape shots of the highlands of Scotland that make you wish you could just pause the movie and stare at it. Smaller and more intimate scenes shine just as bright with close up shots and some nice parallels between the two leading ladies.
The costume and makeup is also outstanding and I’m certain that this is going to be a front-runner for best costume and makeup design at the Oscars. The detail on some of these dresses is meticulously done and every outfit that Queen Elizabeth gets to wear is a work of art in itself. The sets are also full of great detail and it’s easy to identify when scenes take place in either Scotland or England. Most scenes in England are opulent and full of sunlight that shows off how glorious and powerful England is, while scenes in Scotland are more drab and rustic, almost always in rain. It gives off a much coarser feeling, but one that fits the rough around the edges Mary.
Speaking off, Saoirse Ronan is absolutely fantastic in every scene she’s in. If there was any reason to see Mary Queen of Scots, it would be for her performance. She takes complete control of every scene and asserts herself as a strong force to be reckoned with. But it’s her expressions that really seal the deal for me. There are a handful of scenes throughout the movie that has her just staring at the people that have betrayed her and we see a mix of sadness and anger while simultaneously giving off the impression that she’s going to get her sweet vengeance on them. If there was ever any performance to give her a Best Actress win, it’s this one.
Margot Robbie also does a great job at Elizabeth I, but she’s not as prominent as the trailers or posters would make you think she is. She occasionally pops in every 10 or 15 minutes to comment on how things are going in Scotland to her advisors, but she never directly interacts with Mary until the very last scene. It’s compelling for the first third of the movie, where both Mary and Elizabeth are playing mind games with each other over formal British letters, oftentimes with Elizabeth coming off as the paranoid one being outwitted by Mary, but that dynamic fades away after a half hour or so.
As for the historical accuracy of the movie, while I admit that I don’t know everything about the two women, I can at least say that the movie takes several liberties with the interactions and depictions of the two monarchs. Both women never met face to face and Elizabeth I never signed off on Mary’s death warrant, which were apparently big sticking points for some. Personally, these inaccuracies didn’t bother me at all. Liberties need to be taken with the events of Mary’s life in order to make them entertaining to watch. As compelling as Mary is, the movie realizes that it needed to spotlight both Robbie and Ronan to show off their acting range, and these changes make it possible for them to do so. If a few creative liberties were taken then that’s fine with me as long as it all comes together by the end.
But unfortunately, the movie never really does that. Parts work wonderfully, but by the last 20 minutes I was just rolling with what the movie was throwing out at me. I gave up trying to understand why Person #6 betrayed Mary and what their motivations were. Things kept happening, but it was never clear why they were happening. I checked out, which is never a good sign for a movie.
Mary Queen of Scots demands that you have an intimate knowledge of everything that it wants to address. It expects you to know about both monarchs, how succession works, why Mary being a Catholic in Scotland was such a big no-no, and why Elizabeth frequently had her agents interfere in Scotland’s monarchy in ensuring that Mary wouldn’t be a threat to her. If you don’t have the time to learn about all of that, the movie doesn’t care. If you get lost while trying to follow the loyalties and allegiances, the movie doesn’t care. The only thing it does care about it telling a very competent and very well acted retelling of the life of the legendary Scottish queen.
I’m almost certain that Mary Queen of Scots will get a handful of nominations come awards season. It’s reeking of Oscar bait, and while I did enjoy a good portion of it, I was so tired by the end of it that I gave up on understanding it. I started watching it just for the pretty visuals and Saoirse Ronan’s performance. Normally I’d be okay with that, but not for a movie that’s based on some of the most interesting women in European history. They deserve better than what we got.