There are some historical tales that have been fairly beaten to death, the world wars to take two examples. The destructive disintegration of the relationship between Queen Elizabeth I and Queen Mary of Scotland is another. So the writer director is rather stuck with the plot – spoiler alert, one Queen dies – and the time line and all that good stuff so, in order to make his project fly he must:-
1. Find an unknown twist, or make one up
2. Cast some fabulous actors to add depth to the study in female fortitude and fury
3. Make it a sumptuous piece of cinematography, stunning the eye
4. Add in some touches that make it more ‘real’ of the time than in the past, including making it more gory, gritty and grim.
So the latest offering tries, oh how it tries, to nail these four tropes.
We get a meeting between the Queens after Mary is exiled and given sanctuary in England. Apparently there are no records of this and while we can’t say it didn’t happen, like we can’t say Donald Trump is truly the devil’s spawn or that Tony Blair is really a polibot, controlled by alien forces, it is probably unlikely despite wanting it to be true. A lot hangs on this meet up, it’s foreshadowed pretty much every twenty minutes and seems decisive in a ho-hummish way when it does happen. But in and of itself it doesn’t justify the two hours on film.
Saoirse Rohan and Margot Robbie are both marvellous actors. They acted Ms Knightly who I reviewed last week into a cocked hat. Robbie was, to my eye, the real star which was a bit of a surprise because Rohan is a screen delight every time I’ve seen her. I do have quibbles (come on, this is me, when don’t I quibble?). Why are their teeth treated as sacred cows? Robbie is a prosthetic joy with her beaky nose and scabby face as real to me as it could be but everyone’s teeth were straight out of the Californian Orthodontist’s playbook. Why? They’d be a right old mishmash in real life, given the time and likely diet of the Royals. And the period that passes is over 25 years yet Rohan ages not a minute whereas Robbie deteriorates rapidly. Was that a metaphor or some such? Buggered if I know.
The cinematography was splendid, the usual travelogue-style encouraging you to visit the Highlands. Mind you, with all the outdoor scenes, there wasn’t a midge in sight which makes me even more certain that they are genetically designed only to bite the English. Come on, it’s not just about rolling wildernesses and stunning lochs. Pretty all the time doesn’t cut it. Maybe it’s like the teeth thing.
Otherwise there was gore, some violent sex, some perfunctory and artistically shot buggery. Pretty much standard for a 15 cert these days. All of it unnecessary, of course but, hey ho, if Game of Thrones can, why not the mainstream cinema?
Now I did have some extensive and expensive dental work earlier in the day so with a mouth full of sutures and a coppery tang to all I ate – note to self: don’t suck pennies and eat salted caramel ice cream, it just doesn’t fly – I may have had a bit of a jaundiced eye. But really this was a pleasant rehash showcasing some great talent at work. The trouble is it’s a bit like watching a top quality plasterer redo your kitchen. All the skill in the world can’t make up for the lack of intrigue.
In Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk last year, there was not a lot of a new story, but what he did was find a new human angle and focused on that. He won plaudits from me by centring on individuals who weren’t famous, bit players really. Why not do that with the Mary-Elizabeth falling out? Why not take Mary’s step-brother James and look at these events through his eyes and not hers? There’s a tonne of political intrigue there. Just a thought.