Mary Queen of Scots

Cast: Saorise Ronan, Margot Robbie, Jack Lowden, Joe Alwyn, David Tennant, Guy Pearce

Director: Josie Rourke

Writer: Beau Willimon


Last year saw the release of a superb historical drama which inventively used its period setting to cleverly and profoundly interrogate contemporary attitudes about women in power, the personal and political rivalries that compel them and what they can achieve within the sexist boundaries confining them. That film was The Favourite, a witty and stunningly original picture that demonstrated just how much room there still is for reinvention and experimentation in the costume drama, a genre that some feel has already been exhaustively treaded. Mary Queen of Scots has similar ambitions to the Yorgos Lanthimos film. It relates the tale of two female rulers at a time when such a concept was unheard of, the complex relationship they shared, one that encompassed familial affection, ideological enmity and feminine empathy, and how their bond was eventually destroyed by the interference of their male subjects. The film sets its sights on the world today by showcasing how little has actually changed since this point in history where irreconcilable partisan conflicts dominated the political sphere and how the men who led these movements could only agree on one thing: that women should be kept from exercising any authority or control by any means necessary. While it does this quite well, what sets this film apart from The Favourite is that this it is not ultimately daring or nonconformist enough to come across as more than ‘another costume drama’.

Penned by Beau Willimon, who specialises in writing soap operas disguised as political thrillers (whether intentional or not), the film mainly concerns itself with the titular Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan). Having lived in France for almost her entire life, the nineteen-year-old Catholic widow returns to Scotland in 1561 to claim the crown she inherited as an infant. This does not bode well for many of the men who have been governing Scotland in her absence, not least of which is her half-brother the Earl of Moray (James McArdle), who feel that they have been doing just fine without their teenage queen. Another such objector is John Knox (David Tennant), the Protestant cleric who feels it is against the will of God for a woman, never mind a Catholic woman, to rule. The one who potentially has the most to lose however is Mary’s 25-year-old cousin, Queen Elizabeth of England (Margot Robbie). While Mary is young, renowned for her beauty and outspoken in her feminine desires and ambitions, Elizabeth is world-weary, her make up hides a face riddled with smallpox and she remains unmarried and without children, choosing to instead be seen by her subjects as a man rather than a woman. The two have never met but often exchange letters in which they discuss their shared goals, their opposing values and their mutual understanding of what it is like to rule in a world where men see their gender as a threat.

Ronan delivers a commanding performance as a compassionate but fiery queen who is determined to rule no matter what the men who oppose her have to say about it. She has the kind of steely resolve and bold fearlessness that make her a force to be reckoned with, but she has a softer side as well. Being a young woman of little experience, she possesses the same kind of teenage naiveté that Ronan’s previous characters in such films as Brooklyn and Lady Bird had that offsets her more mature qualities and makes her seriously unprepared, if no less capable and determined, to face the challenges awaiting her. With her youth also comes this vigour and progressive idealism that make her stand out and seem all the more threatening to her older and more conservative contemporaries. Her ideals are as foreign to her kingdom and subjects (that the Irish Ronan doesn’t quite nail the Scottish accent is a nice, little way of emphasising her foreignness) as they are liberal and enlightened and, while perhaps a little too 21st century, do all the same succeed in serving their purpose, which is to depict Mary as a woman ahead of her time. Amongst Mary’s confidantes is David Rizzio (Ismael Cruz Córdova), a queer, black man with a proclivity for cross-dressing whom Mary loves and accepts with all her heart. There are no prizes for guessing how well his life in the dogmatic realm of 16th century Protestant Scotland turns out.

Standing opposite her is Elizabeth, probably the more challenging of the two roles. Presented as a mirror image of the Scottish queen, we learn that even as she enjoys greater popularity and exercises more wisdom Elizabeth still suffers from many of the same anxieties as Mary and understands her plight in the way that only another queen possibly could. While more experienced than her peer and more secure in her royal position, Elizabeth feels just as confined and suffocated by the burdens of her authority as Mary does by the constant opposition she is forced to face. Sensitive to the fact that her predecessor was her half-sister, a Catholic queen whose reign was so violent that her sobriquet, Bloody Mary, still lives on today, Elizabeth has had to contend with how that legacy has affected patriarchal perceptions of women in power (never mind that both queens were the daughters of one of the most violent kings in the country’s history) and has thus resolved to model herself as a man. Her position is an inconsolably lonely one, more so as her decision not to rule as a woman prevents her from marrying the man she loves, and she feels bitterly jealous of her cousin even as she sees her as perhaps the only companion she has in the world. Mary is forthright and independent in all of the ways that Elizabeth cannot or will not be and as they face each other in their climatic meeting, it is all the English queen can do not to be overcome by her simultaneous, conflicting feelings of envy, fear and respect.

The film is structured quite similarly to Heat in that the two lead characters are separated from one another for nearly the entirety of the runtime. This proves to be something of a disadvantage for Josie Rourke, who made her cinematic debut with this film following a prolific career as a theatre director. While her direction is proficient enough that one could never have guessed this was her first time behind the camera, the distance separating Mary and Elizabeth from each other prevents her from being able to depict their relationship in the dramatic terms she knows best: through staging, scenery and performance. The only scene in which the two sovereigns share the screen together comes at the very end and that is the moment where Rourke is able to put her theatrical vision on stunning display. A more unconventional narrative approach that borrowed even more from the theatre might have allowed this film to break free from the constraints determined by its historical premise and realistic aesthetics, but that’s not the route they opted for. The film is able to have its leads play off one another by having them engage in a written voiceover dialogue that almost suggests some kind of psychic bond between them, but the two actresses and their relationship are far more compelling when they’re finally allowed to meet face-to-face and get to perform with and off each other.

Rourke and cinematographer John Mathieson, who is no stranger to historical drama, compose the film’s imagery in often striking ways, especially where the colour red is concerned. In this story of two women who have both been kissed by fire, red becomes a prominent symbol of defiance and revolution. We see it in the menstrual blood that drips into the bucket as Mary gives birth to the boy who will one day be the king of both England and Scotland and we also see it in the radiantly scarlet dress that Mary proudly wears as she unflinchingly approaches the executioner’s block. Mary Queen of Scots is film that sets out to make a radical statement on feminist history and hits onto something with this portrait of Mary as a woman who was denied a birthright that she was entitled to according to the laws of the very patriarchy that sought to deny her. Her strength, ferocity and individuality, all qualities that would have won her praise and admiration had she been a man, are instead met with fear, distrust and resistance. Although she is ultimately executed while her cousin Elizabeth goes on to oversee a long and prosperous reign, Mary’s victory is that she lived a life that was unapologetically hers. While the film is definitely guilty of some historical revisionism (Mary and Elizabeth never once met in real life) and could probably be accused of forcing some of its 21st century progressivism, it tells the story that it wants to tell and does so with fire.

★★★★

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Lady Bird

Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts, Lucas Hedges, Timothée Chalamet, Beanie Feldstein, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Lois Smith

Director: Greta Gerwig

Writer: Greta Gerwig


Lady Bird has a note-perfect opening scene that accomplishes more than some movies do in their entire runtime. It features the titular Christine ‘Lady Bird’ McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) and her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf) sitting together in a car. They are on their way back to their home in Sacramento after visiting a state university and are both in tears as they listen to the final seconds of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath audio book. In that brief moment they are emotionally in sync with one another, but that changes as soon as they start talking about Lady Bird’s future. Despite her mother’s wish that she go to an affordable in-state college, Lady Bird is impatient to leave Sacramento and travel to someplace like New York, “where the culture is”. This erupts into an argument that Lady Bird ends by jumping out of the running car. It sets exactly the right tone, packs so much humour and conflict in the mother-daughter exchange, and ends in such a jarringly unexpected way that if Lady Bird had ended up being nothing more than a five-minute short film, I still would have been satisfied.

There’s plenty more to come though. We next see Lady Bird being fitted with a cast on her arm and proceed to follow her as she completes her final year at school. Over the course of that year Lady Bird joins the school’s theatre programme with her best friend Julie (Beannie Feldstein), she dates two guys, good-mannered Catholic boy Danny (Lucas Hedges) and rebellious musician Kyle (Timothée Chalamet), and loses her virginity, and she conspires with her father Larry (Tracy Letts) to apply to Columbia behind her mother’s back. She also learns a few things along the way, like how much her family is struggling financially ever since her father was laid off, forcing her mother to work double shifts at the hospital to make ends meet, and how much she still has to learn about life, love, and herself. This is not a plot driven story; it works more like a chain of short episodes in the life of 17-year-old Lady Bird, née Christine McPherson, on her passage into adulthood, detailing the lessons, troubles, and pleasures she experiences along the way.

Written and directed by Greta Gerwig and based largely on her own experiences as a Catholic teenager in California, there is a definite sense of time and place to this film as well as a strong authentic voice. The film is set in 2002, where people are still reeling in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks (it’s just one of many reasons why Marion is so apprehensive about her daughter moving to New York City) and where the modern digital age hasn’t quite fully arrived yet. By setting the film in her hometown of Sacramento, Gerwig is able to create a backdrop that feels both lived-in and intimate, partly through her use of impeccably-cast character actors such as Lois Smith and Stephen McKinley Henderson, who leave sound, memorable impressions in their few minutes of screen time, and also through the investment in detail that could only have been provided by one who has lived this life. From the subsiding middle-class lifestyle that the family lives to the Catholic rituals practiced at the school to the specific atmosphere of the city of Sacramento in 2002, the film is filled with features from Gerwig’s life that she is able to depict in a personal and familiar way with a few little touches.

The key relationship at the heart of this film is that between Lady Bird and her mother. Far from the docile Irish girl she played in Brooklyn, Ronan is utterly boisterous as the restless, defiant Lady Bird. As a character who is impatient for her life to begin but still doesn’t quite understand that she doesn’t yet know what she doesn’t know, Ronan hit that perfect balance between acuity and naiveté and is able to be sensitive and vulnerable while still being impulsive and imprudent. Metcalf meanwhile plays her exasperated passive-aggressive mother with a truly profound sense of world-weariness and maternal affection in equal measure. That she loves her daughter is never in doubt, but she doesn’t always know how best to express it and oftentimes doesn’t have the patience for her teenage angst on top of everything else she has to deal with. There is a scene near the end that focuses squarely on Metcalf’s face for a prolonged, unspoken take in which her performance reaches a moving, heartbreaking peak. In their scenes together the mother and daughter are constantly playing jump-rope with the line between familial harmony and antagonistic quarrelling, as in one moment where they go shopping together and switch from having a heated argument to cooing over a pretty dress in one second flat.

Lady Bird is a thoroughly enjoyable film full of humour, insight and heart. It can occasionally be a little too repetitive and is sometimes a little evasive when faced with a moment that threatens to be too hard-hitting or upsetting. But then that evasiveness is pretty characteristic for a film where the main character throws herself out of a moving car in order to escape an argument with her mother. While I cannot fault a film for being true to its own character, there were still one or two moments where I would’ve liked to see Gerwig follow a moment through and see where it led. Anyway, none of that is a slight against the many things that the film does well. Lady Bird treats its story with much honesty and authenticity, Ronan continues to shine as one of the best young actors working today and brings much humanity and warmth to what is often an unlikeable character (and ditto to Metcalf), and the film at its best is irresistibly funny and affective. I hope this will be the first of many films in Gerwig’s career as a director.

★★★★

Brooklyn

Cast: Saorise Ronan, Domhnall Gleeson, Emory Cohen, Jim Broadbent, Julie Walters

Director: John Crowley

Writer: Nick Hornby


The journey of an immigrant is an arduous one. The prospect of traversing a great distance over the ocean to a new land in pursuit of a better life is a daunting one that requires a profound amount of resolve and will to follow through. To embark upon this journey means to leave their homes and even loved ones behind and to place their faith into the hope a better future. The journey doesn’t even end when the boat pulls into the harbour as the immigrants must then adapt to this new world and overcome the cultural, linguistic and even prejudicial barriers in place. This is the journey that Brooklyn attempts to portray through the eyes of a 23-year-old girl in the 1950s seeking a new life for herself in New York. It is a story that embodies such feelings as fear, loneliness, diffidence, uncertainty and isolation. It is a tale that is effective in its simplicity and empathy as it depicts this character in her search for a place where she can belong.

Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) is a smart and capable girl living in an Irish town where her prospects are very limited. She is given the opportunity by Father Flood (Jim Broadbent) to move to New York where she will be given a job and a whole new life. She takes this chance even though it means leaving her family and home behind. Whilst living in America with the fiercely Catholic Mrs. Kehoe (Julie Walters) she suffers from a severe case of depression and homesickness as she finds herself in a world completely alien to her own. Everything changes when she meets and falls in love with Tony (Emory Cohen), a confident and charming Italian boy who helps Eilis to find joy and comfort in her new home and a sense of belonging. However a personal tragedy occurs that brings her back to Ireland and, while there, she finds her old, familiar life waiting for her along with a new job and a kind, handsome Irish boy called Jim (Domhnall Gleeson). Eilis becomes conflicted by the choice she must now make between her life in America and her life in Ireland.

Saoirse Ronan, one of the best young actresses working today, makes this film. In her previous roles she has displayed an uncanny gift for accents but this role gives her the chance to perform with her native Irish voice and it is a treat to see. As Eilis she conveys an effective sense of vulnerability as she struggles to adjust to her new life and a wilful spiritedness as she grows and matures as a person. This film shows her character at a tough point in her life where she is faced with a difficult choice between two vastly different lives. On one hand is her life in America where everything is new and exciting and where she has built a life for herself that makes her happy. On the other hand is her life in Ireland where everything is comforting and familiar to her and where she can be with her loved ones. Ronan does a stellar job of portraying this character’s fear and ambivalence as she struggles with the conflicting agonies of her choice.

Equally worthy of praise is Nick Hornby’s screenplay which provides a beautifully sensitive portrayal of Eilis’ journey and growth as a character. The film does not shy away from depicting the grief and anguish that comes with leaving one’s home to make this kind of journey or the despairing depths of her isolation as Eilis becomes torn between her two homes. The story allows Ronan to really flourish as an actress as her character undergoes a great transformation from a meek and delicate girl to a vigorous and self-assured woman. Her experiences with love and loss are handled with such humanity and compassion that her journey becomes all the more heartrendering and affective to behold.

Brooklyn is a moving and emotional portrait of a woman’s search for love, happiness and a home. The journey she undertakes is as turbulent and tempestuous as the waters of the Atlantic and she suffers much grief and sorrow along the way. Her heart belongs to two different lives that threaten to tear her apart as she struggles to reconcile her American values with her Irish heritage. The film allows the audience to understand the pains and heartaches of Eilis’ choice, making her ambivalence all the more empathic and relatable. Even if we are fairly certain what choice she will make in the end, it doesn’t make the struggle any less difficult. When she finally makes her decision at the end, she does so with a heavy heart knowing fully well what her choice means and what it is she’s giving up. The result is a touching and heartwarming film that is as captivating as it is moving.

★★★★★