You can’t unbeautify Margot Robbie. Even with a paprika-red, elecroshocked Afro; even with frilly choker frock collars that make her face as rectangular as a Lego Movie caricature; even with garishly overdone Ronald McDonald pancake makeup; even with a bumped-up Wicked Witch of the West nose — even with oozing, pus-gorged facial pox, for crying out loud! — you cannot help noticing that this stunning creature is still Australia’s most beautiful physical export, portraying the pompous and paranoid Queen Elizabeth I, who in the mid-1500s was the ruling figure of Protestant England.
But if you didn’t know that, if you had never seen Margot Robbie, her overacted, high-strung and hideous Queen might appear as a bold and believable character brilliantly done up by the movie’s makeup department. In fact, don’t pay too close attention to any of the characters here, none of whom have anything really to do except (Queens) play strong and haughty; (men) toss long, gel-infused locks, flash big eyes, flap beautifully oiled leather coats, and stamp big polished leather boots; and (maids) titter, giggle, swoon and eavesdrop.
If you can get past the fact that, during these desolate times of Protestant–Catholic countryside wartime embroilment, everyone has perfectly groomed, high-couture coifs and facial hair; perfectly clean and pressed garments; perfectly clear skin; perfectly youthful, under-30 physiques; all set in a perfectly ethnically blended character mix, you will likely enjoy this movie. And if you can not notice the perfectly bleached Westernized teeth, the perfectly plucked eyebrows, and the perfectly toned muscles, you definitely will. Can you forgive the mundane, unwieldy and at times ridiculous dialogue for the sake of action and beauteous cinema? Your passion is found here.
Into this jumbled cassoulet of characters, their disassembled words and the sticky stew of a plot in which it’s all oversimmered, splashes the one bright light of the two hours of film: Saoirse Ronan. Her name may be as unpronounceable as this movie is unwatchable if you cannot suspend disbelief, but when her feisty, bright-eyed, pale and innocent freckle-faced Queen Mary of Scots is onscreen it’s the one place where you can actually kick back and believe this plot’s hooey.
Her energizing presence and whip-cracking words slap her Scotsmen into shape as she arrives on the doorstep of her darkly hairy, bearded older cousin post-exile. She may be just 18, but after being married at 15 and widowed months later, she’s ready to take the kingdom she rightfully owns back from Queen Elizabeth. It’s one of history’s best setups for a royal catfight.
Is Q. Liz into it, asks her royal consult? I think not! is the reply. But then, as if it’s all not confusing enough, Q.E. has a better idea. How about my cute, youthful lover Henry marry young Q. Mary, and thus win her over to the Protestant side so we won’t lose power?
So, marry Mary does (listen for the awkward piece of dialogue where marry, Mary and merry is used 6 times in 1 sentence). How goes it? Dear moviegoer, do you even need to wonder? But if you don’t know the facts of the real history, or notice plain bad plotlines jazzed up for drama, you’ll enjoy this movie. If you can ignore faulty accents and overstretched acting, you definitely will.
Besides the dynamic and plucky Queen Mary, what’s to love in this film is the resplendent cinematography. Chunky, glossy black steeds canter over broad dirt roads cutting through gem-green hills and fields; beyond them, folds of lavender mountains are splayed between valleys frosted with snow. A gray pallor of overcast skies adds a touch of cold beauty to every outdoor scene, a serenity that somehow smooths out the frequent overseriousness of the people within. The jaunty soundtrack, too, is quite good, a balanced mix of symphonic moments broken up with lively passages of Scottish highland flings and classical harpsichord pieces. And, well, a good history tale is a good history story — if you don’t know about or notice great breaches in the facts and timeline within it.
Quick review: What you don’t know (or notice) won’t kill you. Lest you accuse the reviewer of being too hard on this film, know that I am a good deal of Irish, and thus always cheer for any storyline where my spunky and outspoken ancestors may very well have played a good part. Also, on principle, I refuse to give a bad review to a film with something worth viewing. Which this one is.
Confession: Two days before reviewing Mary Queen of Scots I reviewed the excellent film The Favourite. Plotline: Young, down-and-out girl shows up on older and more experienced royal cousin’s doorstep, which sparks a palatial catfight between women for power. Sound familiar? Perhaps if I hadn’t viewed The Favourite first, and known the absolute brilliance that every aspect of it commanded, I might have felt differently about Mary.
Regardless, supporting your local theater is important and imperative — so see both! And as for Mary Queen of Scots, if you can bring a hearty suspension of disbelief and the ability to focus on the few very well-done things, it will definitely be worth your money and time.
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Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Margot Robbie
Director: Josie Rourke
Rated R: For some violence and quite a bit of sex
Running time: 112 minutes