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"MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS"
(2018) (Saoirse Ronan, Margot Robbie) (R)


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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: The Queen of Scotland contends with various forms of dissension and opposition as she tries to have herself named the rightful heir to be the queen of England, a role now occupied by her cousin who tries to undermine those efforts.
PLOT:
It's 1561 and Mary Stuart (SAOIRSE RONAN) has returned to Scotland to reclaim her position as supreme monarch following her brief role as queen consort of France until her husband's death. Now a 19-year-old widow, Mary believes that she's the rightful heir to be the queen of England, but in her absence, the throne has since been occupied by her cousin, Elizabeth I (MARGOT ROBBIE), who has no intention of stepping down. Understanding that, Mary desires to be named as her direct heir, but finds opposition to that from multiple fronts.

Some, such as Protestant ruler John Knox (DAVID TENNANT), don't want a Catholic ruling either country, while Mary's illegitimate half-brother, James, Earl of Moray (JAMES McARDLE), isn't pleased that she's replaced him as their country's ruler and ends up conspiring against her along with the likes of the Earl of Lennox (BRENDAN COYLE). Besides her loyal chambermaids and court musician Rizzio (ISMAEL CRUZ CORDOVA), Mary's only real ally in her court is the Earl of Bothwell (MARTIN COMPSTON) who's sworn to protect her no matter what.

At the same time, Elizabeth and her chief advisor, Sir William Cecil (GUY PEARCE), try to figure out how to undermine Mary's efforts, including sending the Queen's lover, Robert Dudley (JOE ALWYN), to Scotland to woo Mary, a tactic that fails. Mary does end up marrying another suitor, Henry Stuart, a.k.a. Lord Darnley (JACK LOWDEN), who's third in line to rule England behind only Elizabeth and Mary. But as his drinking and wandering eye put a strain on their marriage, Mary must contend with her various opponents repeatedly attempting to undermine her rule.

OUR TAKE: 5.5 out of 10
"You've come a long way, baby" used to be a slogan -- intended to be empowering yet still demeaning -- that came about in the time of the ERA movement and wanted consumers to know that women could now take control of their smoking like men had for centuries before them.

Yet, despite that general proclamation and the decades that have come and gone since then, it's both telling and sad that women still haven't make it all of "the way" when it comes to job equality, holding top positions in the corporate world or representing their constituents in the world of politics.

All of which is somewhat surprising considering that when it came to monarchies in the days of old, women often ran their countries as queens and thus wielded more power than any male counterpart, especially if unmarried. And while the United States still has yet to elect a female president, England had a moment centuries ago where more than one woman was vying for the top "job."

And that would be way back in 1561 when Queen Mary attempted to return home and take her rightful place on the throne, after being widowed at a young age to the ruler of France, but found herself blocked by reigning Queen Elizabeth who wasn't about to give up her top spot. That tale and the political maneuverings from both parties, complete with religion-based issues, sexism and more come to play in "Mary Queen of Scots," an uber handsome and pretty production from a visual standpoint, but one that's sort of dramatically inert despite the inherent potential in the real-life story.

To be transparent, if I learned about these two women decades ago in high school history class, I've completely forgotten any and all details. Thus, after some brief on-screen titles gave a quick encapsulation of the whos and whats to open the proceedings, I sometimes found myself struggling to keep up as director Josie Rourke -- working from Beau Willimon's screenplay adaptation of John Guy's "Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart" -- jumps right into the story. But not before showing Mary and particularly her neck about to face the business end of an ax to let us know where things are eventually going to head (and behead as it were).

With a big rewind to move the plot back in time, my big issue is that aside from Mary (Saoirse Ronan) and Elizabeth (Margot Robbie), the vast majority of the rest of the cast are dudes. Who, with their long beards, similar attire and not enough of an explanatory introduction, all started to blend together, making it a bit challenging at times to differentiate some of them.

In short, we have Elizabeth as the reigning monarch in England with no husband or kids, a personal view of herself as more of being a man than a woman, and not being happy that her cousin Mary has returned (to Scotland) and wants the rule of her birthright country back.

Accordingly, the men serving the English queen -- including her close advisor (Guy Pearce) and occasional lover (Joe Alwyn) -- offer up suggestions about how to circumvent that. At the same time, those serving the Scottish queen (including James McArdle as her illegitimate half-brother who was ruler until her return), as well as her political foes there (such as David Tennant as a full-fledged misogynist), do their best to manipulate and undermine her.

Willimon, who created Netflix's political drama series "House of Cards" is no stranger to political maneuvering, backstabbing and so on. But while that was engrossing until Kevin Spacey derailed everything, this one just never becomes that enthralling or even interesting. Sure, there's the kindred spirit part of two women trying to keep it together in a world teeming with male wolves ready to tear them down or apart.

The tech credits -- ranging from the costumes, production design, makeup, cinematography and more-- are top-notch. And, not surprisingly, Ronan and Robbie are quite good in the leads. But with the leading ladies not meeting until very near the end of the film -- and barely so at that -- the back and forth switching between sides doesn't do the two-hour and change offering any favors. Nor does the dense plot that really needs more time -- like that offered in a mini-series -- to allow the story time and space to breathe and us an opportunity to know the characters, major and minor, better than we do.

As it stands, it's certainly not bad by any means. But it needed to come a longer way (baby) to compete for our interest and attention span when the likes of the far more outlandish, engaging and entertaining royal court costume dramedy "The Favourite" could be playing next door. "Mary Queen of Scots" rates as a 5.5 out of 10.




Reviewed November 26, 2018 / Posted December 14, 2018


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