Thursday, 24 January 2019

Movie review: Mary, Queen of Scots, dir Josie Rourke (2018)

I know it sounds sexist, but there’s something hysterical about ‘Mary, Queen of Scots’, directed by theatre director Rourke. And Mary’s Scots accent is a fabrication: the young queen grew up in France. Surely they could have found a Frenchwoman to play the part (Saoirse Ronan’s French is stilted at best; she would have been coached for the scenes where she talks with her ladies-in-waiting).

But the vaunted clash of the cousins doesn’t quite come off, with Mary busy placating greedy nobles in Scotland and fighting off the slanders of the redoubtable John Knox (played with suitable vigour by David Tennant). If Elizabeth had William Cecil (a smooth Guy Pearce), Mary had no-one. And she also had to appease the redoubtable Lord Maitland (Ian Hart) and the former regent the Earl of Moray (James McArdle). Both men are played by actors of great emotional range; the scene where Moray breaks down in tears when Mary tells him her son is to be named after him is a stupendous piece of cinema acting, the camera capturing the man’s features crushed by feelings he had no words to express.

Mary flees to England seeking sanctuary after having alienated almost everyone around her at home. But while Elizabeth is shown to visibly age in the 18 years between when Mary came south and Mary’s death by the axe, Mary remains unchanged. She even has the same gentlewomen in her retinue when she steps onto the dais in front of the axeman.

And the clash of titans we were promised? It’s bound up in a few scenes that might or might not have an historical basis. Certainly Mary was headstrong and over-reliant on her own powers. But that would turn out to be a characteristic of most of the Stuarts. And the religious clash between the reformed churches and the Catholic Church would continue to plague British monarchs for generations. We forget, today, in the age of al Qaeda, that religion and identity politics were once at the very core of western civilisation. Better that we remember.

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