February 13, 2019

Mary Queen of Scots (2018)

Saoirse Ronan, Margot Robbie


I want a do-over. I want a do-over of every history class I've ever taken, where the narrative is centered around the woman. Around the minority. Around the person whose story was never told to me before because "history is written by the victors." But most of all, I want those stories to have their day in the sun because they deserve to be told to everyone--not just people like me, who seek them out.

But for that to happen, these stories need to be told well. This one is not.

It has flashes of brilliance. Saoirse Ronan, for one, is absolutely captivating as Mary Stuart. She plays a multi-faceted character that is both strong and stubborn while simultaneously humanizing her and showing vulnerability, all while keeping the poise of a queen. The interactions between Ronan and Robbie, who plays Elizabeth I, are equally riveting, with the two women showcasing an unspoken bond of comraderie atop a layer of distrust and tension because the bullshit patriarchal society has set them up to be rivals. Oh wait, did I add that last part in myself?

Seriously though, this story is interesting if no other reason than because it's not the dominant narrative. But that also leads to the precise problem with this movie, which is that it expects the viewers to already be familiar with this history. The story dives in with little more than a few lines explaining the preceding 18 years of Mary's life, while dumping her onto beach with a bunch of French-speaking handmaids and no clue as to what the hell is going on. It's sort of explained as the movie goes along, but the crumbs of knowledge come so slowly you'd be better off Googling it so as  follow along properly. Because honestly, the movie does follow history for the most part. There seems to be far less fiction in it than most historical movies. But what good is that if the viewer has no idea what's happening?

Part of the issue is that the Mary/Elizabeth rivalry spans a number of years. So to maximize the drama and truncate the plot to fit into a reasonable-length movie, a number of things are cut. Namely, transitions. Scenes jump from one to another with little indication of how much time has passed or events in the meanwhile in an attempt to keep focused on the main conflict. It gives the illusion of a dual POV with both Elizabeth and Mary showing their struggles, but it is really only Mary's story with the occasional glimpse into Elizabeth to show what Mary could not know. It's an unbalanced view that adds little, other than to enrage the viewer with repeated examples of misogyny toward women in power and their attempts to minimize it or strip it away entirely.

Ultimately, what has stayed with me from this movie is the gentleness that was shown to the female characters. For all of Elizabeth's talk of "becoming a man" to survive in a man's world, it showcased both hers and Mary's love of their respective countries in a completely different way than the men around them. It showed women leaders and the environments they navigate, and how that couples with what society expects of them. But more importantly, it centered their stories (though really, much more Mary's than Elizabeth's) in a historical setting that is often told with them as a plot point in someone else's progress instead as the hero to their own story. So yes, I want more of these. I want to see the nuance in every goddamn woman in history, from the Queens of England to the women who were never allowed to rise up the ranks in the first place. I want their stories, and I want them told with this kind of care. Just, you know, with better editing and plotting.

Final word: It feels sort of wrong to bag on a historical movie about women when Hollywood has put out about 1,000 terrible war movies starring only men, but this could have been better. Especially considering women only "get" so many movies made about them.

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