Mary, Queen of Scots, Loses Her Head and the Audience, Too

Culture Watch
tags: movie review, Mary Queen of Scots

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at bchadwick@njcu.edu.

Mary, the Queen of Scotland in the 16th Century, was executed in 1587. That was 431 years ago. It will take me 431 years to figure out what on earth the new movie on her, Mary, Queen of Scots, is all about.

We all know that Mary lost her head as punishment for a plot she supposedly participated in to assassinate her cousin, British monarch Elizabeth 1. The two cousins, one running the show in England one running a much smaller and less glamorous (oh, yes, less glamorous) in Scotland, did not like each other and vied with each other for power and prestige in the British Isles and in Europe.

There have been numerous movies and television series about Mary or about Elizabeth with her relationship with Mary one of the sub-plots. In just about all of them, Mary is portrayed rather badly. She is seen as stupid, malevolent, cold and jealous (take your pick).

In the new film, Mary Queen of Scots, that just opened, Mary gets a brand new look. She has gone from the beat up ’68 Chevy to the sleek new Lexus with all the bells and whistles.

Her “new” story is more about the two women fighting off incompetent men and stone walling ambassadors and potential rebel chiefs than it is about statesmanship.

It is a rich, deep saga about the British Isles at the time of Elizabeth, full of heroes and villains and lots of wine drinking. There are lots of horses, pounding across this meadow, and lots of water, too. There is water everywhere.

The problem with the movie is that your heads spins around on your shoulders trying to keep up with the story. Sitting in the audience trying to follow the two queens is like watching a tennis match (a bad one) in which the ball bounces over the net from Queen to Queen and back again.

What on earth is going on in this movie?

We meet Mary, played by Saoirse Ronan, as a kid and are told she was married to a French King for a few years, then he died, then she hopped off to Scotland to claim her crown there and did not marry a whole lot of guys, then picked a good one, cousin Henry Stuart. He turned out to be a bad one, though, and a drunk, and messed up the castle but good. Evil rebels then staged a Civil War, but the loyal Scots put it down. Mary’s half-brother comes in and out of the story, nearly tripping on his long and scraggly beard. Somebody blows up part of the castle and Mary’s hubby Henry gets killed. Under duress, Mary marries the assassin. There are a whole lot of ambassadors running who knows where. I never saw so many Ambassadors in my life.

Elizabeth’s advisors, romantics that they are, want a proper husband for Mary, so they suggest that the Queen ship off her lover, Robert Dudley to marry her (this suggestion does not go over well in the palace at all).

OK, that is the first thirty minutes of the plot. Whew! You are already exhausted trying to keep up with the story of the dueling royals.

The movie ends with poor Mary, who has screwed up everything, all on her own and begging her cousin Elizabeth’s forgiveness so she can get a new start in life, but that doesn’t work out too well.

Queen Elizabeth comes off worse than her cousin in this film, rather feebly directed by Josie Rourke. She is played by Margo Robbie. She is evil, vicious, nasty, jealous. petty and hates men. She hates women, too. She hates everybody. She hates her horse.

She is the other side of the planet from the real Queen Elizabeth as played by just about everybody as a tough, but admirable, monarch (Helen Mirren was my favorite Elizabeth). In this film, you want to chase after Elizabeth on her horse and push her off it (oh, Elizabeth wears awful, just awful, flame red wigs).

The entire move is about Mary and her civil wars and palace woes. At one point, when she is in a whole lot of trouble, she graciously tells her ladies-in waiting to flee to save their own necks. They tell her they will stay at her side. They should have fled, not into England, but into a good movie.

The reason she was executed – for treason against Elizabeth - does not come out until the end of the film, and by then you don’t care.

Her real execution was quite gruesome. The axe missed her neck and hit her skull and a second flow was needed but that did not work and they had to cut off the sinew that held her head on with the axe blade. Then the executioner held her head in the air by what he thought was her hair, but it was a wig and came off and her head plopped to the ground. Oh well, I’m glad they left all that out because the movie is dreadful enough as it is.

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