Josie Rourke‘s Mary, Queen of Scots (Focus Features, 12.8) is a slog and a drag — a hard-to-follow, sometimes infuriating attempt to make a 16th Century tale of conflict between willful cousins (the titular, flinty Mary vs. Queen Elizabeth of England) into something relevant to the convulsive culture of 2018.
I found it a slog because I didn’t give a flying fuck about anyone, and because the damp air (which wafted out from the screen) and chilly-looking Scottish exteriors made me want to wrap myself in scarves and sweaters. Why would anyone want to live in Scotland in the first place? It’s all fog and peat and stone castles. I just wanted to build a fire and huddle.
I spent the entire 124-minute running time trying to understand why I hated this film almost immediately. Have you ever walked into a crowded room and decided on the spot that you really don’t care for the vibe of a certain person standing near the punch bowl? It was like that. Within minutes I was seething with irritation. There were several factors, I gradually realized.
I felt alienated by Rourke’s attempt to impose a woke social atmosphere upon 16th Century Scotland and England — by applying a strong women-vs.-sexist pig narrative and going with multicultural casting choices. I’m not saying it’s invalid to adopt this approach (knock yourselves out), but I did find it numbing to sit through.
Early on I was telling myself I need to see Charles Jerrot‘s same-titled 1971 version with Vanessa Redgrave and Glenda Jackson. I don’t recall this film at all, but I was muttering to myself that it has to be better than the newbie…it HAS to be.
I resented having to wade through the thick Scottish accents, and realized early on that I’d have to wait for a subtitled screener to understand all of the plot intrigues. It’s one of those historical flicks in which nothing is fully clear until you go to Wikipedia and read the actual histories.
I admired Saoirse Ronan‘s feisty performance as the titular character (she’s always good) but hated the blatant “acting” by the secondary characters. Every actor explicitly conveys how their character is feeling about what’s going on — whether they’re pleased, unhappy, sad, suspicious, unsettled or whatever — and after 15 minutes of this I was ready to scream. Please, assholes…stop “acting”!
I felt especially hostile to James McArdle‘s performance as the Earl of Moray, Mary’s resentful half-brother. My second most despised performance was Jack Lowden‘s as Lord Darnley — he preens, he poses, he goes down on Mary, etc.
Beau Willimon‘s screenplay is overly complex and labyrnthian — I gave up trying to follow all the twists, turns and betrayals, especially toward the end.
I admired John Mathieson‘s cinematography and James Merifield‘s production design, and I “enjoyed” the extreme kabuki-like make-up that Margot Robbie wears as Queen Elizabeth. The intense red wig (revealed as such in the film) is going to look great on a 4K Bluray.
Ten minutes after it ended I wrote the following on a notepad: “Boring, interminable, tedious, over-acted, poorly acted, half-indecipherable, seriously narcotizing. I hated everyone in this film. I wanted everyone to die. I wanted to escape from damp, frigid Scotland. I wanted to shoot heroin into my veins, or at least drop a Percocet.”
There’s a surreal bit in which several guys in Mary’s court, lined up in platoon-like formation, suddenly go into a dance step. Like they’re in a musical. I decided then and there that Rourke had inserted this surreal bit to deliberately fuck with me. This clip will eventually show up on YouTube. I was so numbed out when it happened that I almost didn’t respond. I wasn’t sure it was real — I thought I might be dreaming.
When Mary, Queen of Scots finally ended, four or five hours after it began, I moaned out loud “thank GOD!”
The best scene, I suppose, is a one-on-one between Mary and Elizabeth — what do you want?, who are we?, why do we have to do this?, etc. It happens in the third act but never occured in actuality. Whatever.
Mary’s actual execution was horrific — it took three blows of the axe to finish the job. Rourke cuts to black before anything happens.
Mary, Queen of Scots won’t be happening in the major award categories. Cinematography, production design, costumes, makeup…fine. But forget Best Picture, Best Actress (Ronan is surrounded by too many factors working against her), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Supporting Actress…nothing in that realm.