It is a bit ironic that John Knox, a founder of the Scottish Reformation—and an orator, slanderer and vilifier of all things “papist” —would be one of the more energetic elements in a movie about a doomed Catholic monarch and mother of England’s first Stuart king. It is also a bit odd that “The Favourite,” a film that seems to be delighting both audiences and critics right now, is about Queen Anne, the last of the House of Stuart. Aren’t royal lines supposed to lose potency as the centuries clip by?
The messages of “Mary” that can be applied to our own age are received early, and often.
To be serious—which is not entirely easy concerning “Mary Queen of Scots”—the film stars the Irish actress Saoirse Ronan as the Scottish ruler and the Australian actress Margot Robbie as her English cousin Elizabeth I and seems destined to puzzle, bore and perhaps irritate audiences mostly because it has no sense of dynamics. Josie Rourke, an established theatrical director in the United Kingdom, is making her big-screen debut with a problematic story. To truly understand it, one needs to have at least a cursory knowledge of the baroque lines of succession that made Mary a threat to the English queen. (Being the granddaughter of Henry VIII’s elder sister, some believed, made Mary Stuart the more rightful heir to the throne than Elizabeth. Being a Roman Catholic presented other problems.)
But Rourke is less interested in the politics of Mary’s case—or, certainly, any of the lingering theology surrounding it—than she is in the gender-based conflicts of her subject’s life. Or, to be more blunt, Mary’s betrayal by every man she knows. Knox, played venomously by David Tennant, serves as a Greek chorus, adding interspersed insults to the injuries Mary suffers in the throne-room and the bedroom and the birthing chamber—the scene of a particularly overwrought slo-mo sequence that results in the future James VI and I of England, Scotland and Ireland. Sisterhood is a central theme, and that it can’t ultimately save Mary is a further indictment of patriarchy, as painfully obvious as that gets to be.
The screenplay certainly gives the benefit of the historical doubt to Elizabeth I.
The screenplay, adapted by Beau Willimon from John Guy’s book Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart, certainly gives the benefit of the historical doubt to Elizabeth I, who—spoiler alert—ended up having her relative’s head cut off. But Elizabeth does feel a kinship with, and ultimately a respect for, the besieged ruler who shares her island. “We could do worse than to place her on the throne of England,” Queen Bess tells her counselors, who are never going to let that happen. Neither is Elizabeth, really, nor the people in Mary’s immediate vicinity, who include the Earl of Bothwell (a terrific Martin Compston), the Earl of Lennox (Brendan Coyle) and even her brother, James, the Earl of Moray (James McArdle), an eely character to be sure.
The two lead actresses deliver compelling, even moving performances. Ronan milks as much heroism as she can out a character who is largely viewed, historically, as a victim. Robbie, who gradually disappears—as Elizabeth apparently did—under a mask of lead-white makeup, violent red wigs and the scars of smallpox, has the more powerful role, though a climactic scene in which the two rulers face off provides quite the potent performance by both.
Overall, though, Rourke fails to make the movie dramatically engaging because she gives equal dramatic weight to everything—the fate of nations, the act of childbirth, Elizabethan sex and even the presence in Mary’s entourage of a gay attendant, Rizzio (Ismael Cruz Cordova), who is the beneficiary of Mary’s rather precociously liberal worldview. “Be whomever you wish with us,” she tells him, exhibiting a politic of generosity that apparently knows no limits. “You have not betrayed your nature,” she says consolingly, after Rizzio gets caught sleeping with her new husband, Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden), who is not only a Stuart, but one of those people the vitriolic Knox keeps railing about. The messages of “Mary” that can be applied to our own age are received early, and often. But the movie’s efforts to be woke may ultimately put some audiences to sleep.