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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Won’t You Be My Sister (Mary Queen of Scots)

I’ve always enjoyed watching people in fancy, old clothing argue over who gets to live in each other’s castles. Therein found I much to fancy in theater-turned-film director Josie Rourke’s first feature: “Mary Queen of Scots.” A film which hits that rare sweet spot in which it presents itself as a piece of high drama yet is still viscerally entertaining.
Built mostly on snappy tête-à-têtes between queens and their councilors, “Mary Queen of Scots” is almost a bottle movie, as the titular Mary (Saoirse Ronan) and her antagonist Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie) seldom depart from their keeps, confining the film’s action to no more than three major locations. But where a different sort of picture may have done more to portray the characters’ separateness, Rourke extenuates the distance between characters by cutting from one queen to the other, using letters and envoys to create the illusion of banter, whilst, in actuality, these conversations transpired over months. In this manner, despite the film’s kingdom wide scope, there persists an almost claustrophobic feeling, as tension ramps up between the sister lands and their rulers.
Therewith, rather than using cinematography to define the depicted castles as quantifiable spaces, Rourke puts another distinctive stamp on the picture by stylizing every frame possible. Though the structural continuity of the world is not deliberately contradicted, the manner in which the film cuts from room to room without establishing a relative geography makes it feel as though anything could be anywhere. The product of this flair is a lucid, dream-like air; subtle enough so as not to usurp the film’s mood, yet still ever present. At its highest points, you’ll feel as though you’re slowly falling down the rabbit hole into the twisting world of British monarchies.
The dreamish nature of the film unfolds further with a gaggle of spectacularly eerie performances. Ronan’s Mary—both ever charming and ever powerful—is a great focal character for the audience to fall down such a rabbit hole with, and Robbie’s Elizabeth is the perfect queen of hearts, lurking at the end, waiting to trap our hero. Oh, that Elizabeth. Here portrayed as an obsessive, menacing figure, Elizabeth I teeters, at points, on the edge of insanity, whilst still maintaining an ever-tightening grip on her seat of power; and Robbie’s portrayal of these qualities is so wild and entertaining that it almost makes up for the film’s faults I must discuss in the impending paragraphs.
Forsooth, looming madness must be called a primary theme of Rourke’s history, as the broader arc of the story deals with the men privy to queen Mary’s counsel seeing madness where none yet exists, and, in their paranoia, breeding conditions madder than they had yet feared. This side of “Mary Queen of Scots” is almost beautiful, but for the fact that the film does not seem to have much of anything to say about this theme. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to have much of anything to say at all. “Mary Queen of Scots” is not the kind of movie that really makes you think. The story is well told, but with no meaning, so that beneath the veneer of pretty pictures and powerful performances, beneath the thoroughly enjoyable story the inner workings of this film run about like a chicken with no head, utterly unable to find its way anywhere.
The story is Shakespearian in humor and scope, but, ambitious as they may be, the queens of this film are nothing like Richard III, whose villainous ascendance to the throne contains an abundance of potential revelations regarding human nature. The film tries to do something interesting by setting Mary and Elizabeth I as mirrors of each other—two women who should have been friends, had not circumstances made them enemies from the start—but this thread is not followed to its fullest. Everything builds up to the queens’ first in-person meeting, but once this scene finally comes, it’s really weird. So, so weird. You’ll get what I mean if you do see it.
And you should see this movie, that is if you also enjoy watching people in fancy, old clothing argue over who gets to live in each other’s castles. It’s not the deepest work of art, but it is really fun to look at. A montage of beautiful sets, shots, and costumes with just enough plot to keep you engaged. Even in its deficiencies, it is boldly made. A great film for fans of such historic aesthetic, whose only real flaw is not carrying any themes as strong as its production. Well, that and this one cottage whose roof was thatched unrealistically small, but that’s beside the point.