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New ‘Mary Queen of Scots’: a complex trial

Making a movie about a complex historical story isn't easy, even when the story is a familiar one — as the story of Mary Stuart is. That's what I try to explain in the review of "Mary Queen of Scots" that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

I’ve lost count of how many movies have been made about the Scottish queen Mary Stuart. Or of how many actresses have played the doomed monarch – though I mostly recall Vanessa Redgrave’s majestic portrayal in 1971’s “Mary, Queen of Scots” opposite Glenda Jackson as Mary’s arch-rival, Queen Elizabeth.

A shorthand recounting of Mary’s life includes being named Scotland’s queen shortly after her 1543 birth, being raised in France, married at age 15 to the future French king Francis II, returning to Scotland after Francis’ death in 1560, marrying twice more – both times badly – all while attempting vainly both to appease Scottish nobles and Protestant clergy (Mary was a confirmed Catholic) and to forge a relationship with Elizabeth, only to end up fleeing Scotland and ending up imprisoned in England for more than 18 years before being beheaded in 1587.

The latest version of this sad historical study is Josie Rourke’s “Mary Queen of Scots,” starring the Irish actress Saoirse Ronan as Mary and the Australian actress Margot Robbie as Elizabeth. In attempting to give this familiar tale a sense of freshness, director Rourke – working from a script by Beau Willimon – adapted the 581-page, 2004 biography by Cambridge historian John Guy.

Guy, whom the New York Times referred to as “one of the most distinguished scholars of the Tudor period,” built his book around a close study of original documents – many of which, wrote Times reviewer Gerard Kilroy, had been previously unknown. Guy’s argument is that Mary was doomed because many Catholics believed she had a better claim to the English throne than her quote-illegitimate-unquote cousin Elizabeth.

Elizabeth’s chief adviser, William Cecil, took Mary’s claim seriously enough that he worked tirelessly to condemn her. As Kilroy wrote, “Cecil and … Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth's secretary and Cecil's spymaster … did (Mary) more harm by altering her letters and intercepting her codes than either of her murderous Scottish husbands.”

To be fair, Guy cites the machinations of all the men surrounding both queens as being the chief cause of Mary’s dark fate. These men included nobles of both countries, the clergy – especially that of John Knox, the famous Scottish theologian – and Mary’s hapless husbands.

Director Rourke follows Guy’s lead. Trouble is, as with most two-hour film versions of complicated histories, the script she works from takes a number of shortcuts and, where time contractions and invented dialogue don’t work, Rourke resorts to outright fabrication and more than a bit of stylistic fantasy.

For the record, Mary and Elizabeth never met in person – and especially not in a remote house, dodging in and out of linen curtains hanging willy-nilly from the rafters. And while several members of the movie’s cast are people of color, that, too, is an invention.

Yet none of that matters as much as this: Rourke takes a fascinating, if familiar story, and makes a movie that leeches away most everything that is interesting and replaces it with brooding imagery involving characters almost impossible to like.

Which is what happens when you make a movie as trying to sit through as it is pretty to watch.