Sunday, December 23, 2018

It's shite being Scottish


In case Wikipedia goes down, there's still Mary Queen of Scots.

Directed by Josie Rourke
Written by Beau Willimon (based on the book Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart by John Guy)

Spoiler alert: a Stuart and their head are often soon parted

Remembered, if it be remembered at all, as winter 2018's Oscarbaiting true story of female political power within the British monarchy that wasn't The Favourite, Mary Queen of Scots throws all of the former film's finer qualities into sharp relief—its momentum, its pessimism, its performances, even the precision of its sometimes-questionable filmmaking choices—and it makes you reevaluate just how good The Favourite is, even when you already thought it was great. And if Queen of Scots is forgotten, it shall have richly earned that fate, having committed all the cardinal sins of the bad biopic and then some. Unfocused, ahistoric, humorless, preachy, well-appointed yet somehow poorly-crafted, dramatically inert to an almost startling degree, and therefore, yes, rather boring—it's tempting to say it's just the wrong movie altogether.  Not quite a cradle-to-grave biography/hagiography of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland (an almost purely declamatory Saoirse Ronan), it at least narrows itself to the accession-to-decapitation period of her life.  This ends up being just about the same thing in effect; in fact, it probably contributes to the overwhelming lack of texture.

But the movie the marketing campaign sold was concerned with something different, and much more concrete—shades of The Passion of Joan of Arc, another martyr to English politics.  The trailer promised a deep and narrow study of Mary's contest to control the island she shared with her cousin from another dynasty, Elizabeth Tudor, Queen of England and Ireland (another Margot Robbie role designed to induce dissonance between the beautiful woman we know she is and the wreck her make-up artists try to turn her into).  Now, it isn't not this, but by the time it reaches the interesting part of this conflict, 125 minutes in, the movie realizes it's just plum run out of time, concluding exactly how it began: by finishing up an obligatory flash-forward to the day of Mary's execution that had, 125 minutes previously, tried and failed to cast a pall of fatalism over the proceedings—and, of course, had indicated the level of narrative innovation we'd be getting throughout—while covering Mary's two decades' worth of English imprisonment and intrigue entirely within a title card.  It doesn't even have the gumption to kill Mary well: despite its way-overreactive R-rating (presumably based on some admittedly good orgasm-and-neck-tendon acting from Ronan, and some nipples that I presume were prosthetic anyway), neither the grace with which Mary reportedly confronted her demise, nor the gory horror of her inept execution, manage to find their way into this film of Mary's life and death.   In other words, it's a movie so unconcerned with its audience's emotional engagement that it can't even bother generating basic animal sympathy for a woman getting her head cut off on the third swing.

Blame that on a screenplay which is based on a pro-Mary history book and plays exactly the way that sounds, with no emphasis on anything in particular or, until the end, on anything at all, committed to plonking-out events so rotely that it becomes a slurry: Mary's return to Scotland from France after the death of her first husband, Francis II; Mary's reunion with her bastard half-brother James, Earl of Moray (James McArdle); Mary's battles with insurrectionists; Mary's attempt to reconcile her Catholicism with the Protestant ascendance in Scotland; Mary's conflict with the fiercely anti-Catholic and almost as fiercely anti-woman Presbyterian theologian John Knox (David Tennant, between this and Jessica Jones making you wonder if he's hoping calling women vile names might at last discourage the more perseverant Whovian groupies); the repeated entreaties of Elizabeth's hectoring envoys; and, especially, Mary's miscalculation of a marriage to Henry, Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden), whom the film does not emphasize also bore the royal surname Stuart, and certainly never goes out of its way to mention was first cousin to both monarchs, which is one reason Elizabeth was displeased by their marriage and even more displeased when Mary had him assassinated once he started to behave as if his lineage, his marriage, and his dick made him the monarch of Scotland.

Or, as is the case in this movie, a gang of Scotland's undifferentiated, hard-to-keep-track-of noble lords and/or lairds did: because the fundamental failure of Queen of Scots is that, for various thematic reasons, it absolutely demands that Mary Stuart be a good person, which immediately runs up against the sleazy realities of Renaissance politics, and means in practice that since Mary Stuart can't do anything bad she essentially can't do anything at all—even things she did do, like locking Knox in prison because he annoyed her, let alone anything she just might have done, like not allow her apparent passionate lust for her second husband to blind her to his ambition.

Which would seem to suggest a tale, or at least a subplot, about politics and disillusionment smothering intemperate teenaged love amongst the tiny proportion of 16th century Europe's population for whom oral sex, or any sex, isn't unbearably disgusting to contemplate (never trust anybody who'll go down on you and doesn't expect you to return the favor).  But this too is just one more set of alleged facts, presented indifferently, amidst a series of them, none of which even come close to sketching Mary as a character rather than an object around which men plotted.  Well, men, and one woman.

Because every now and again we drop into a much better movie about Elizabeth, which sometimes bleeds interest onto Mary's chronicle, too, because maybe the only thing that director Josie Rourke attempts and actually succeeds at here is to use the Stuart and Tudor as mirrors to each other, a pair of female monarchs opposed to one another yet somehow the same, both made somewhat historically unique, yet stripped of their personal identity, by their gender: the Tudor who was begged by her counselors to marry and bear a child, the Stuart who was called a whore and raped for doing just that, whilst the Tudor survived by cutting herself off from her feelings and—in her own words, which might make you chuckle, if you perceive them, as I did, as an echo of Darth Vader's—becoming "more man now than woman."  This, alone among Queen of Scots' various sub rosa goals, really does function well, in part due to some sturdy visual storytelling regarding Elizabeth's daydreams of pregnancy and some even sturdier match-cutting between Mary in her relatively simple dresses and Elizabeth in her increasingly alien couture, and although the screenplay degenerates even further into brute-force summary by the end, at least there's some scrap of meaning to be found in the machinegun montage of Elizabeth aging and all the insane dresses which Renaissance period piece master Alexandra Byrne designed but which the film had not actually had time to properly showcase.  (This may suggest to you that editor Chris Dickens is doing a good job with Queen of Scots, but I assure you he is not, because whether it's Rourke—a theater director making her film debut—or Dickens—an Oscar winner whom I presume is doing the best he can with the footage Rourke provided—Queen of Scots is, in general, the most ineptly constructed film I've seen all year, glued together with the kind of absurdly bad editing that you'll notice even if you, like myself, don't usually care about "good" editing that much.  Characters noticeably teleport around, lines of dialogue get sliced off right at the punctuation mark for no earthly reason, and no sense of time or flow ever accrues to any of it; and a smattering of consciously-designed, "interesting" editing at the beginning and at the end doesn't really make up for the parts where Guy Pearce is apparently capable of morphing his face through his back in between cuts.  As for what those cuts contain, it's always shot nicely if uncreatively by John Mathieson, with some postcard-ready images of the Scottish hills and handsome-enough interior lighting schemes that almost manage to cover up this film's rather small yet somehow still-squandered budget, right up until a battle sequence that features armies of nearly two whole dozen men fighting in one more incoherently-cobbled scene, as snoozy as any other in this oft-snoozy picture.)

In any event, this movie inside the movie, that seeks to elucidate the central drives of the movie around it—we could call it Elizabeth (oh... right)—is maybe twenty-five minutes long, but winds up with a vastly more complete character, a decidedly unglamorous and pitying portrait of the Tudor monarch that perhaps tilts too much toward shorthand to get to where it needs to go, but successfully dramatizes the sacrifices Elizabeth made as she held onto power in part by forswearing love and progeny, until her poxed, greasepaint-covered face and Byrne's interdimensional costumes have rendered her a hollowed-out avatar of the English state with a more-than-passing familiarity to Pennywise the Dancing Clown.  It helps that Robbie is a genuinely fine actor, whereas I've never been able to call Ronan the same, her chief attributes here being teenaged-looking, and therefore capable of presenting the appearance of a doomed naif, and possessing a certain ethereal quality that makes her appealing, theoretically, as this nominally-devout and martyred (44 year old) queen.

Not that "Catholic" and "Protestant" wind up much more than just words in Queen of Scots themselves, team names that are treated with bewilderment by the secularized moderns involved in its production, under whose treatment the film and its audience alike become the equivalent of the Enterprise crew when confronted with those aliens who were black on one side and white on the other, and vice versa, unable to comprehend how their strife came to be.  Concerning itself very little with the political or religious substance of Great Britain's transformation from Catholic to Protestant, the terms become de-emphasized tokens for the other things the movie's driving at.  It's another movie in a long line of movies that treat Scotland as a simple ruritania where men could be men (and, in this instance, where women could be women, and even men could be women or at least a lot less binary about it), and while Queen of Scots leans progressive rather than libertarian, it's the same difference: Mary's preferred version of Scotland is a font of anachronistic liberalism, sadly corrupted by impure English politics on the one hand and cruel English religion on the other. (One's reminded of the line in Trainspotting about what it says that the English are wankers, but Scotland was colonized by wankers.)

And so we're presented in turn with all these little markers that I imagine Rourke hoped might have gelled into some grander notion, but never do.  We get the kind of Branaghian race-blind casting that turns out to be seriously distracting in this kind of dry, self-insistent chronicle.  We get a woke political allegory where "Catholicism" equals freedom and "Protestantism" equals stabbing harmless gays, and which pointedly keeps Bloody Mary Tudor and the Rising in the North outside its scope.  We get a class-conscious queen who's blandly pleasant to her servants, in a film that'll be damned if it lets even one of them emerge as a character.  And, finally, we get the kind of history that hopes you're historically illiterate enough to find the final frames of the film, featuring the accession of Mary's son James to the English throne, as a signal of Mary's belated triumph, rather than a reminder his son got his head cut off, too.  In the end, it does find a clever way to cheat history, by putting Mary and Elizabeth together.  This is gratifying, even if it too goes nowhere.  Mary claims superiority to the cousin who's now her only hope for survival, on the basis of being a Stuart.  On the basis of this movie, however, I think you could be forgiven for wondering "what's a Stuart?", while asking, in the same breath, "was there some scene I missed that taught me why I was supposed to care?"

Score: 3/10

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