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Bustling fun with Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie in Mary Queen of Scots

Bustling fun with Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie in Mary Queen of Scots

Bustling fun with Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie in Mary Queen of Scots
January 17
16:48 2019

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Oft-told tales should have a damn good reason for being oft told. Do we need another dramatic portrait of Mary Stuart of Scotland and her fight for recognition, power and succession — or failing those, survival — with Queen Elizabeth I of England?

In for a Schiller, in for a pound. The story won’t abdicate: it has an eternal, intricate, appalling fascination. It has been a German verse drama, an Italian bel canto opera, a Katharine Hepburn and a Vanessa Redgrave movie. Now for Mary Queen of Scots, Working Title, producers of that high-style mod Elizabeth with Cate Blanchett, fling another Australian at Queen Bess, Margot Robbie, while shaping an Irish brogue into a Scots burr — historically questionable in view of her French upbringing — for Saoirse Ronan’s Mary.

WT’s motto: “We do creative perversity and you like it.” We did like Elizabeth, directed by India’s Shekhar Kapur. Maybe multinationalism and creative poly-ethnicity enliven filmed history? If you don’t approve of a black Lord Randolph (Adrian Lester) in the new movie, since QE1’s shuttle diplomat was most definitely white, too bad. Colour-blind casting has now crossed the Rubicon from opera and stage Shakespeare, just as French-bred Mary crossed the North Sea to provide provocation and problem politics for her royal cousin.

Theatre director Josie Rourke is good at fervent bustle on screen. The script by Beau Willimon, of Netflix’s House of Cards, helps her. Everyone here has a ruling passion: in some cases several. Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden), a fetching blond, has the hots for darkish-skinned Rizzio (Ismael Cruz Córdova) as well as for the Scottish queen and her nuptial bed. In that bed, he and Mary, played by Ronan with a sensual, wilful gleam, give “oral history” a whole new meaning. Down in London, meanwhile, Robbie’s flamboyant Elizabeth fights the worst that the movie’s make-up and prosthetics team can do — hooked nose, facial pox eruptions — to breathe fire at lords, lovers and lackeys.

Margot Robbie as Elizabeth I

If the film were any more fun it would be barely legal. It has probably already been outlawed by the chairs of history at leading universities. Mary and Elizabeth get to meet, with the same apocryphal libertinism as in Schiller and Donizetti. (Here it’s a clever tableau vivant of mazy drapes and hangings: the two costumed actresses actually didn’t meet till filming this.) John Knox (David Tennant) provides fulminating flair, fetched into the film for adversarial tantrums and preachings of damnation. Add set battles and unruly brawls and we think, “British politics can never truly have been this chaotic, cranky and cockamamie, can it?” Then we look in the mirror of the present and think, “Ah. Yes. Forget I asked that.”

★★★★☆

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