Wednesday, 13 March 2019


So first Ginger Sov arrives from France with a stand-up do and wicked piercings. And she's all like Scotland's my country and accent and everything and you gotta make me queen. And she tells Posh Sov she wants to be BFFs. But Posh Sov's like fuck MQS! That ginger bitch is more in line for my throne than I am, so she tries to hook her up with the super-fit squeeze she fancies, but Ginger's too woke for that and she hooks up with Darnley, who's like next in line to Posh's throne after Ginger, but he's like anyone's, an-ny-ones! after a couple of red bull and meads. Ginger's also pretty sporty, ridin' horses and winnin' battles and stuff, but then Posh goes all Scary with these poxy bumps and scars and she uses a ton of goth makeup to cover them up and hide her real face. Then she watches horses giving birth cause she's jealous of Ginger's now Darnley's Baby Momma and the baby's another one who could steal her throne. But the Ian Paisley preacher guy with the huge false beard is all like she's a whore and a papist so they kill her gay singer song writer guy who also slept with Darnley and her best-bud kidnaps and rapes her and like this goes on for two an extended episode of Neighbours

I exaggerate. Sure there isn't much new in Mary Queen Of Scots; in fact it is a lot like the 1971 film, which itself seemed based, uncredited and with liberties taken, on Antonia Fraser's wonderful biography, There are two major themes to Mary's life: Mary vs Elizabeth, which is in part England vs Scotland, but more the English Virgin Queen versus the younger, prettier, French version. The other is Mary versus the Scots establishment, particularly the church, John Knox versus the Pope, intertwined with the usual Scottish betrayals and in-fighting over their crown and the big one in modern eyes, men over the 'mostrous regimen of women' or as Mary should have called it, 'We Too'.

But to put it simply, the major question in any story about Mary is her own agency: how much she acts and how much she is acted upon, and the biggest problem with this film's approach to that is how it ultimately reverts to cliché whenever it needs to make the dilemma of agency personal. When Mary decides she loves Darnley they ride off on their horses, away from the following lords, to the accompaniment of the inevitable helicopter shot. Later when Elizabeth watches a mare weaning her colt, she is mesmerised to the point of giving herself a shadow-puppet pregnancy. This horse metaphor is so good the movie will come back to it again.

They are serious about the centrality of the distinction between Mary and Elizabeth. The Virgin Queen suppresses her desire to the point of sending the man she loves to woo Mary. Mary, on the other hand, gets married three times, and, if the movie is to be believed, has sex one time with each husband. This is an extreme point of view, based partly on the 1971 film's reading of Darnley's gayness and partly on the filmmakers decision to make Mary the victim of Bothwell, which requires them to ignore a large chunk of her life after her kidnapping and rape, which is probably the most contentious of all the readings of Mary's life. They get around the alternate reading, that Mary might have been part of Darnley's removal, that she went willingly with Bothwell, got pregnant by him (a miscarriage was the result) and stayed with him until they lost the battle of Carberry Hill.

But the film's variations with history are not something that serious, at least if you can justify them in character, and that is the hard part. Bothwell is sympathetic to the point he turns on Mary: the possibility he is actually acting with her or to protect her is unraised. I don't have problems with most of the other deviations, apart perhaps Mary's having a Scots accent. Her English was likely better than, say, Bonny Prince Charlie's, but he had been raised in the French court.

Of course Mary and Elizabeth never actually met, but arranging a secret meeting between them is not a dramatic absurdity. The problem with this meeting is that the arresting shot of the laundry drying and the two queens manoeuvring around the hanging sheets (or whatever they are), each keeping out of sight of the other, loses its visual impact quickly. It's also larding-on the presentation of Elizabeth: after being struck with the pox, she relies on heavier and heavier doses of make-up, creating thicker and thicker white masks, until she looks almost like an sf movie villain.. In case you don't realise that the real woman is hiding behind the mask, the visual metaphor will be flung in your face until you do. Given too that Mary does not age from the time she first sets foot in Scotland until she is executed (oh, did I just spoil the film for you?) while Elizabeth ages rapidly is more of a dramatic license than actually having them meet.

The other major problem I had was the birth of Mary's son. By making Rizzio, generally referred to as her secretary, obviously gay, the movie registers its view on the accusations of her having an affair with him. When Mary's actual birthing is shown in detail as gory as Rizzio's murder, it is like RoseMary Queen Of Scots' Baby: the child is outsized and almost misshapen, which probably reflects the general opinion of the Presbyterians of the time. And when we see the young boy, he looks decidedly like Rizzio—and nothing like the picture we see of the young James I of England, which indicates that Mary won the long game over Elizabeth; dying but leaving her heir to take the crown.

There are things to like here, particularly in the interior scenes, which are dark and claustrophobic, and even occasionally lighted to reflect contemporary paintings. But overall it is directed and shot like a series of music videos (Elizabeth would be a natural) or commercials, a sort of short-span story-telling. I think of the visuals of John Ford's Mary Of Scotland, which makes Mary (Katharine Hepburn) into a Holy Catholic martyr, after its love-story with Bothwell (Frederic March) – which are consistent and build toward its climax, one which reflects Ford's obsession with Hepburn as much as anything else.

Saoirse Ronan is excellent as MQS—despite being limited by never aging—and I like her better than Vanessa Redgrave, who seemed too dominant, even while Glenda Jackson was more harsh. Ronan's finest moments come as she realises her position as Queen is nowhere near enough to triumph over being both a Catholic and, most fatally, a woman. Whereas, for Elizabeth, that problem is overcome by, in effect, denying her womanhood. Here Margot Robbie is more limited by the reading of Elizabeth's increasing one dimension of frustration, but there is something to be said for her starting out on more of an even footing. Guy Pearce as William Cecil is perfect, almost stealing scenes from Elizabeth. Brendan Coyle (Lennox), James McArdle (as a weak Moray) and Martin Compston as Bothwell all fill their costume drama roles well, while David Tennant as John Knox is appropriately intense, all Ian Paisley burning eyes hiding underneath a fake beard worse than the ones worn by Tom Berenger, Richard Jordan and Joseph Fuqua in Gettysburg, the greatest fake-beard movie of all time. And a special shout-out to Ian Hart as Maitland, who somehow manages to look (though not sound, thankfully) exactly like Harvey Keitel.

In the end, Mary Queen Of Scots is perhaps too much costume and not enough drama, and the various tensions between countries, relgions and queens are all subsumed into the crucial question of womanhood. Unfortunately, that seems resolved primarily in fashion terms, the movie becomes all costume no drama. Although the execution scene is visually stunning, especially when Mary is stripped of her cloak, a note from history might have been brought it more final drama. Because it took the executioner three strokes of the axe to severe her head completely. Even in dying, Mary was denied her agency.

Mary Queen Of Scots, directed by Josie Rourke
screenplay by Beau Willimon based on the book by John Gay

1 comment :

Clipping Path said...

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