A couple of queens

Saoirse Ronan, Jack Lowden and James McArdle in Mary Queen of Scots. (Liam Daniel | Focus Features)

Film critics are hard to please when it comes to costume dramas: If the movie isn’t edgy and politically revisionist, it’s too stodgy and safe, deemed “Oscar bait.” And then there’s the whole can of worms that is historical accuracy. Despite two new movies attempting to set the record straight, the legacy of Scottish hero/king Robert the Bruce has yet to recover from the drubbing that it took at the hands of Braveheart back in 1995, for one notorious example. Contemporary filmmakers have learned from that experience that they need to do better research as they tread the fine line between credibility and the demands of short-form visual storytelling. And yet, audiences love these sorts of movies (not to mention TV series) as much now as they ever have. Knockout art direction, gorgeous settings and top-tier acting can make up for a multitude of anachronisms and other sins at the factuality level.

At present we have two flicks making the rounds of local cinemas that deal with the dilemmas of royal women, interpreted for contemporary sensibilities in the context of their relationships with other women. One of these, Yorgos Lanthimos’ highly praised The Favourite, set in the early 18th century, falls squarely on the “edgy” side of the divide. The other, Josie Rourke’s Mary Queen of Scots, is more vulnerable to characterization as just another reverent retread of an oft-told tale. I’m here today to persuade you not to give it a pass; it’s actually rather wonderful.


That’s not to say that some viewers won’t be scandalized by the liberties taken with this retelling of the standoff between Mary of Scotland and Queen Elizabeth I of England in the mid-16th century. For one thing, director Rourke, who runs a small-but-prestigious London theater called the Donmar Warehouse, brings to the screen a practice commonly seen in stage performances these days: colorblind casting, wherein a black, Latino or Asian actor is called upon to portray a character who could not plausibly have been anything but white in the place and during the time period being depicted. If you’ve been to see any live Shakespeare in recent years, the cognitive dissonance of this has probably already worn off for you; but it may still feel a little odd to see at in the movies. In Mary Queen of Scots, Adrian Lester plays Lord Randolph, Elizabeth’s envoy to the Scottish court; Gemma Chan plays Elizabeth Hardwick, a confidante of Elizabeth who eventually becomes Mary’s keeper in captivity; and Ismael Cruz Cordova plays David Rizzio, Mary’s court bard and personal secretary. They’re all so professional that the urge to quibble about historical inappropriateness vanishes very quickly.

A little more eyebrow-raising is the depiction of Rizzio as flagrantly gay and a wannabe cross-dresser. There’s no historical evidence of this, to my knowledge, and Mary’s acceptance of him as he is may seem to some like erring on the side of modernism in order to heighten her appeal as a woman of independent mind. It serves to add a layer of irony to the trumped-up charges against Rizzio that he is the father of Mary’s child, the future King James I. 

Other than an almost-hallucinatory meeting between the two queens that never happened in the real world, the history here is about as solid as can be expected within the limitations of a two-hour movie. That is to say that time is telescoped; the bomb attack on Mary’s weaselly consort, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden), seems to happen the day after the birth of their child, and Mary’s abduction by the Earl of Bothwell (Martin Compston) the day after that. Interpretations of who was behind what plot tend to follow current scholarship, though much of the evidence remains up for debate. The machinations of power-seeking in the era of Britain’s conversion from Catholicism to Protestantism were convoluted, and the screenplay by House of Cards creator Beau Willimon, adapted from John Guy’s 2004 Whitbread Prize-winning Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart, does its level best to convey those dense twists and turns using as little verbal exposition as possible.

As a result, much history is left out, including the fact that, while Mary was almost certainly complicit in the “Babington plot” to assassinate Elizabeth, said plot was also almost certainly an entrapment scheme to remove, permanently, the threat of Mary’s arguably better claim to the English throne. There’s just so much that can be left in; already the mind boggles at the intricacy of the scheming that both queens faced from their ostensible supporters, not to mention their rivals and the religious zealots of their day.

That brings us to the feminist core of this version of the story: Both women are strong leaders in their own right; each has powerful respect for the other. Neither can trust the ambitious men who surround them. And both must sacrifice a great deal in order to cling to their perceived birthrights: sexuality, marriage and motherhood for Elizabeth, security and comfort for Mary. In a more peaceful world, we are shown, they could have moved mountains together. Saoirse Ronan is breathtakingly good as the wild, headstrong Mary, Margot Robbie subtly moving as the increasingly embittered Elizabeth.

Also notable amongst the excellent cast of Mary Queen of Scots are Guy Pearce as William Cecil, Elizabeth’s chief advisor; Joe Alwyn as Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, her longtime suitor whom she tries to force into an arranged marriage with Mary; James McArdle as Mary’s illegitimate half-brother James, the Earl of Moray. Tenth Doctor David Tennant is unrecognizable under an enormous beard as Presbyterian firebrand John Knox, who rouses popular sentiment against the “Whore of Babylon” Mary.

The cinematography by John Mathieson is every bit as satisfying as one can ask in a Tudor-period epic, the Max Richter score delicious, the castles forbiddingly cold, dark and uncomfortable, the costumes fantastically detailed, the wigs and makeup on point – including the lead-based ceruse face paint that Elizabeth used to disguise her smallpox scars, eventually making her hair fall out. Amidst all these riches, who are we to quibble that the jury’s still out on whether Mary and Bothwell were in cahoots? Immerse yourself in Mary Queen of Scots tonight; catch up on your serious historical research tomorrow.


Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone jockey for power in The Favourite (Yorgos Lanthimos | Fox Searchlight Pictures)

Rachel Weisz & Emma Stone are dazzlingly nasty in The Favourite

If you’re feeling guilty about New Year’s resolutions already gone by the wayside or never resolved at all, consider this: January is not merely a time for beginnings, but also for wrapping up unfinished business. That’s certainly true for those of us who like to go into movie awards season amply armed with opinions about most if not all of the leading contenders. Academy Award nominations won’t be announced until January 22, but last weekend’s Golden Globes should give us some useful hints about what will be in the running. Luckily, many of the likely nominees are still in the cinemas, so this is the time to play catch-up.

Among those favorites is The Favourite, whose star Olivia Colman took the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Motion Picture: Musical or Comedy. The other two actresses in the film’s power trio, Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone, may simply have canceled one another out in the Supporting Actress category (won by Regina King in If Beale Street Could Talk). On Oscar night, when separate awards aren’t given for dramas versus comedies and musicals, Colman will be up against Glenn Close – whose year this is, finally, per Hollywood scuttlebutt – in The Wife.

But it doesn’t really matter what prizes they take home, or get nominated for: Colman, Weisz and Stone are solid winners in Yorgos Lanthimos’ highly unconventional, acidically funny period flick about England’s Queen Anne and two ambitious attendants vying for her favor: Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (Weisz) and her young cousin, Abigail Hill. At the outset, Sarah, a friend of Anne’s since childhood, is firmly in control. Whip-smart and imperious, she essentially runs the kingdom, steering the sickly and indecisive queen toward policies that favor her own Whig political leanings, including the martial exploits of her husband John Churchill (Mark Gatiss) in France during the War of Spanish Succession.

Opposing the war, because it’s bankrupting the landed gentry, is Robert Harley, speaker of the House of Commons. Played to the foppish hilt by Nicholas Hoult, Harley zeroes in on Abigail as his agent to bypass Sarah and catch the ear of the queen. He even engineers a marriage that will restore Abigail – whose circumstances have been greatly reduced by her father’s gambling debts – to a ladyship. Abigail, however, has some notions of her own, refusing to be used unless she can do some using herself.

One of the things that makes The Favourite different from other costumed dramatizations of courtly intrigue is the way it passes – indeed, far surpasses – the Bechdel test. The men in this version of the story are almost afterthoughts. The history of the period, dense with succession wrangling, religious squabbling, plots and counterplots, gets little attention either from the director and screenwriters Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara. Anne’s husband, Prince George of Denmark, was in fact still alive when most of the events covered in this film took place; but you won’t know it from watching The Favourite – nor that there’s a Jacobite uprising in progress, or that Anne had supported the deposition of her own father, King James II. It’s all about the women: three personalities, each strong in its own way, but with distinctive styles of expression.

As the dance unfolds here, the audience is led to detest Sarah’s bullying ways, even as we admire her take-no-prisoners attitude and keen grasp of politics. Our sympathies are channeled toward underdog Abigail – until her scheme to win Queen Anne’s trust and affections away from Sarah begins to succeed a little too well. Abigail, it turns out, is no less ruthless than her predecessor; she simply has learned to hide her techniques better.

But the big surprise and delight is the development of the queen’s character. In constant pain from gout, and brokenhearted over the loss of 14 children through miscarriages and stillbirths, Anne seems at first a sulky, not-too-bright, self-pitying and self-indulgent lump, devoid of any sort of savvy necessary to the running of a great nation. But don’t underestimate her; the much-abused monarch may not be quick on the uptake, but she has her limits. Anne’s arc here is the slow burn that builds to an incandescent, if unsettling, finish.

Truth be told, the entire film is unsettling, arch and cruel in its tone as something Ken Russell might have constructed back in the 1970s. The bleak cinematography, its wide angles emphasizing the loneliness of life at court, and the score’s nervewracking mix of period music with screeching strings serve to emphasize the unpleasantness of it all. It’s also darkly funny most of the way through, punctuated by an occasional moment of poignancy. Don’t go in expecting Masterpiece Theatre; do expect three finely honed performances by three actresses at the top of their game.