****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!****
My Rating: 1 out of 5 stars
My Recommendation: SKIP IT. You would be better served getting your head chopped off than ever seeing this movie.
Mary, Queen of Scots, written by Beau Willimon and directed by Josie Rourke, is the story of Mary, the young Catholic Queen of Scotland in the 1500’s, and her struggle for power in her native land amidst her rivalry with England’s Queen Elizabeth. The film stars Saoirse Ronan as Mary and Margot Robbie as Elizabeth.
Recently, in the midst of a magnificent hurricane of my own cleverness, I came up with a stunning new maxim that feels decidely old when, after weeks of fasting and meditation in a cold and windowless room, I declared to myself that “Wokeness Kills Art”. For proof of the veracity of my maxim, one need look no further than Mary, Queen of Scots.
As a first generation Scotsman (and an outspoken supporter of a Independent Scotland), a Catholic, and a classically trained actor, a period piece/historical drama about Mary, Queen of Scots starring Saiorse Ronan, who is one of my favorite actresses, and Margot Robbie, another top-notch actress, should be right up my alley. I was pretty excited to see Mary, Queen of Scots, so much so that I actually went and saw it the day the film opened in theatres. My excitement was left dead-eyed, with its decapitated head rolling down the aisle of the theatre once I actually saw the movie.
It is difficult to succinctly state how absurdly awful this movie is…but my best attempt would be to say that Mary, Queen of Scots is a narratively incoherent, cinematically obtuse and historically vapid piece of painfully progressive propaganda.
Director Josie Rourke, who comes from the London theatre world, is so cinematically illiterate I wouldn’t feel comfortable letting her watch a movie, nevermind make one. Ms. Rourke’s inability to even comprehend the most rudimentary aspects of storytelling in film is remarkable to behold.
Rourke’s take on Mary is that she is a symbol for social justice warriors everywhere due to her anti-patriarchy, pro-feminist, pro-gay, pro-trans and pro-diversity views. Ms. Rourke should have renamed the movie, Mary, Queen of Woke. This film has all the cinematic craftsmanship and political subtlety of a Dinesh D’Souza movie combined with the historical veracity of D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation.
Adding to the tsunami of historically inane things thrown into this film to fit a modern liberal agenda, Ms. Rourke uses some bizarre and frankly, distractingly ridiculous color blind casting. So viewers are supposed to be woke enough not to notice that Adrien Lester, who is Black, is playing Lord Thomas Randolph, who was so pasty white in real life he bordered on transparent. Ms. Rourke doesn’t stop there, as she casts Asian actress Gemma Chan as Bess of Hardwick, again, a very, very, very White woman who was decidedly NOT Asian.
Color blind casting in a historical drama is more complicated because “people of color” back then had their own history and back stories. Seeing a Black man as Lord Randolph begs the question…how did a man of African or Caribbean descent, who back then was more likely to be a slave or a servant, rise to the upper echelons of the aristrocracy? The same is true of an Asian women playing Bess of Hardwick. Asian women existed in the 1500’s, obviously, but not in the Royal Court or in the halls of power or among the blue blood families of England. So when audiences see an Asian women or a Black man in such a prominent role in English society in the 1500’s, they have questions, and when the film never addresses or answers those questions, audiences feel deceived and betrayed.
In addition, Bess of Hardwick and Lord Thomas Randolph are real people from history and they were very White…why is it ok for them to be played by non-White actors? Would it be alright for a White actor to play Jesse Jackson in a film about MLK or Louis Farrakhan in a film about Malcolm X? Of course that Whitewashing wouldn’t be acceptable, so why should it be ok for the opposite to occur here? It seems with the Woke Brigade, diversity and inclusivity top authenticity and the evil of cultural appropriation is something of which only “other” people are guilty.
The rest of the cast is also littered with token “people of color”, “token” being the operative word, no doubt to fulfill some wondrous “inclusivity rider”, but that doesn’t make it any less distracting or any more palatable or even remotely believable.
I understand that color blind casting is more acceptable in theatre where the threshold of believability is considerably lower, and while I find it and the reasons behind it distasteful there as well, I accept it as an unfortunate reality. But film is not theatre and the dynamics between film audiences and screen, and theatre audiences and stage, are very dramatically different. Film audiences are much less inclined than theatre audiences to suspend their disbelief over such things as colorblind casting, no matter how well intentioned it is, especially in a historical drama.
In film, audiences want to feel like they are watching the actual events as they take place, and they make a bargain with the movie maker, ‘you make it seem real and we’ll go along for the ride’. But when the Royal Courts of Scotland and England in 1500’s, which were obviously lily white, are populated with a cornucopia of minorities, then audiences just roll their eyes and tune out thinking the whole thing is little more than politically correct nonsense…which it is…because it doesn’t reflect the reality of the time.
Added to the absurdity of the film’s rainbow coalition in Royal Court, was the notion that Mary was a proud champion of gay and trans people. There is a scene where Mary forgives her gay/trans best friend for an act of stunning betrayal simply because she is so accepting of his homosexuality and thus excuses his awful act. This is so historically illiterate as to be absurd. The fact that Mary was a Catholic Queen in a Protestant land, and yet would not divorce or convert in order to save her skin or take the throne, is maybe a strong indicator that her religion IS PRETTY FUCKING IMPORTANT TO HER…and her religion at the time was quite clear in how they felt about “Sodomites”. But for Ms. Rourke, religion means nothing to Mary, it is her modern progressive values that really matter.
In keeping with the vacuous wokeness of the film, the overarching theme of the entire enterprise is that Mary and Elizabeth were feminist sisters, but it was those damn men who ruined everything. Of course, Ms. Rourke and her ilk are too ignorant to understand that taking the agency away from these two historically powerful women and reducing them to victims of the evil patriarchy doesn’t make them iconic, it makes them unconscionably weak…not exactly the girl power message the filmmaker intended.
Ms. Rourke, and her equally abysmal screenwriting accomplice, Beau Willimon of the execrable House of Cards fame, go so far as to have Elizabeth claim that she is “now a man and not a woman”, therefore making sure that when Elizabeth does something bad…and anyone who knows history knows she does something bad to Mary…masculinity is to blame! See…even when women do something terrible to another women it isn’t their fault! Damn you patriarchy because women have no agency!
I went to the film with a decidedly bleeding heart social progressive, the Honourable Rev. Dr. Lady Pumpernickle - Dusseldorf Esquire, and even she thought the cavalcade of suffocating political correctness in the form of colorblind casting, pro-LGBTQ and anti-maleness on-screen was way too much, and to an eye-rollingly ridiculous degree.
As for the actual making of the movie, Ms. Rourke is terribly ill-equipped as a visual artist. With the luscious green Scotland as a backdrop, Ms. Rourke somehow manages to make a visually dull, flat and stale film. Ms. Rourke’s inability to even do the most basic of blocking for the camera, as opposed to the stage, makes for some very stodgy sequences, not the least of which is a poorly executed battle scene that is staggering in its incompetence.
The aforementioned Beau Willimon’s script is equally inept. Willimon starts out trying to balance the Mary narrative with the Elizabeth narrative, but then just scraps that idea altogether and throws in a myriad of betrayals and counter-betrayals that end up only muddying the already murky historical waters. Willimon’s script is a key component in making the film such a garbled, incoherent mess, but it is Ms. Rourke’s weak direction that ultimately sinks the ship.
As for the acting, the majority of the cast is so poorly directed that they end up with lots of theatrical histrionics but very little genuine humanity. There is a lot of light but absolutely no heat from the cast that pushes too hard, too often to make something out of nothing.
Ms. Ronan is a compelling figure on-screen but her talents are entirely wasted on this disaster. It certainly would be a treat to see her play the role under the eye of a different, more competent, director though, as Ronan is very well equipped to play such a demanding and complicated character.
Margot Robbie is both out of place and under utilized as Queen Elizabeth. Robbie’s Elizabeth is such a listless and lifeless figure that she is no match for the dynamic Mary, which is maybe why they just, of the blue, stopped comparing and contrasting the two of them mid-way through the film.
The climactic scene of the film, which is at best historically dubious, has Mary and Elizabeth facing off. This sequence is so poorly shot, blocked and executed it was stunning to behold. Rourke uses fabric hanging from the ceiling to build a maze that the two actress…and the camera, must navigate until they finally come face to face. I get what Rourke was trying to do there, using the fabric to symbolically show the layers of barriers between the two women that they must wade through in order to actually see one another, but this is just another example of a theatre director trying to make a movie. This sequence is so visually ineffective and cinematically impotent that it boggles the mind. While Ms. Rourke intended this sequence to be a metaphor speaking volumes about the world Mary and Elizabeth inhabit, what it really does is perfectly highlight Ms. Rourke’s filmmaking ineptitude.
On the brightside, some of the costumes look nice.
In conclusion, Mary, Queen of Scots is a bitter disappointment because it tries to turn this historical drama into a piece of woke propaganda. As a historical drama it fails miserably both as history and as drama. As propaganda it also fails miserably because of the heavy handed incompetence of director Josie Rourke. If I could go back in time and had a choice between having my head chopped off or having to sit through this movie, I would gladly go under the executioners axe than suffer through this cinematic abomination.
If you want to see an exquisitely crafted and highly entertaining period piece and historical drama, do yourself a favor and go see the deliciously sublime The Favourite and skip the putrid cinematic detritus of Mary, Queen of Woke.