Mary Queen Of Scots**1/2 out of ****
Rated R

(for some violence and sexuality)
Released: December 7, 2018 NY/LA; December 21 expands
Runtime: 124 minutes
Directed by: Josie Rourke
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Margot Robbie, Jack Lowden, James McArdle, Guy Pearce, David Tennant, Adrian Lester, Martin Compston, Adam Bond, Joe Alwyn, Gemma Chan

Cate Blanchett’s Queen Elizabeth casts a long shadow that few can step out from under (although it’s possible: Helen Mirren, namely). Such is the plight of Margot Robbie in Mary Queen of Scots. Her take on The Virgin Queen (in a supporting role) is serviceable enough, even laudable, but it lacks the roiling gravitas by comparison.

That’s also a bit of a tangent to start with, but then that’s what one goes on occassionally during Mary Queen of Scots, dissecting details – both good and bad – in a film that’s strong in parts (costumes, Saoirse Ronan, art direction, cinematography, Saoirse Ronan) yet doesn’t quite work as a collective whole.

It gets worse as it goes, too, as you begin to realize that director Josie Rourke is laser-focused on sensationalizing the showdown between two female monarchs by didactically recontextualizing it (and them) for our modern times. Both progressive and ribald, Mary Queen of Scots has no want for #MeToo theatrics (and more); what it lacks is credibility.

Bringing her heralded London stage background to bear with heavy doses of soapy, sexy melodrama, Rourke puts a blatant feminist spin on these 16th Century events, the tale of two sovereigns – Mary of Scotland and Elizabeth of England – who each lay claim to the throne over the entire British Isles.

Twisty political scheming, military strategy, psychological calculations, shifting allegiances, and fascinating palace intrigue all fuel the conflict. (So, too, does some occasional frisky, quasi-BDSM, at times laughable rough sex.) The screenplay may be by House of Cards showrunner Beau Willimon, but its spirit is much more Game of Thrones.

In the end, Rourke’s take becomes clear:  the one thing tearing these women apart is the misogynistic, vile, power hungry venom of the (Protestant) men who counsel them.

When patriarchy is on the line, all men are cunning, duplicitous, self-serving, even traitorous when necessary. They’re animated by brute machismo, not moral courage. Elizabeth is seen as a tragic victim of this institutionalized force, and Mary the proto-feminist.

Mary’s credo is loyalty to the sisterhood above all, but Elizabeth struggles to embrace that ethos even as she yearns for it.

Mary Queen of Scots is a period piece softball, tailored squarely for contemporary activist talking points. It doesn’t tell history, it uses it as a trojan horse for 21st Century cultural trends about gender norms, women’s rights, and gay tolerance – all for which Mary expresses ideals that are decidedly du jour, to the point of anachronistic.

That isn’t the worst thing in the world – especially when packaged in such opulent aesthetics and anchored by a powerhouse Ronan – but it should be taken for the lavish soapboxing that it is: not a history lesson for Humanities, but a modern one for Women’s Studies.

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