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Tag: Scotland

Reviews

Review: Mary Queen of Scots

January 20, 2019

A new biopic of Mary Queen of Scots examines the role of women in power featuring an amazing cast.

What’s Going On?

This is a biopic of Mary Queen of Scots and tells the story of her life upon her return to Scotland until her death. Mary’s life is full of power-struggles, romance, intrigue and war. Despite Mary being the title character a great deal of time is spent on her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I who faces many of the same challenges.

The film starts with Mary returning to Scotland after living in France for several years (she was married to the heir of the French throne but he died) and the governing council instantly takes a dislike to her. David Tennant’s John Knox (representing the Protestant Church of Scotland) is dismissed from the council almost immediately, not for being Protestant, but because Catholic Mary wants toleration of religion – a wise move for a Catholic monarch ruling over a Protestant country. But this is only the start of Mary’s problems. Her half-brother does not support her, neither do many of the powerful nobles, with a great many of them seemingly on England’s side. Then there is England, Elizabeth’s council, recognising the threat Mary poses as a Catholic claimant to the throne of England, push aggressive action. There is also intense pressure on Elizabeth to marry and have an heir, if she were to die then Mary would be the next in line.

The film is essentially about how Mary deals with all these problems and certainly these are problems that are capable of destroying a person or burying them.

Behind The Scenes

The film is directed by Josie Rourke who, while new to film, is a successful theatre director. The film is based on John Guy’s book Queen of Scots : The True Life of Mary Stuart.

In Front Of The Camera

While there is a good ensemble cast including Guy Pearce and David Tennant the focus is clearly on the two leads; Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie playing Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth, respectively. Ronan is surely one of the best actors working today and can play anything from a vampire to an assassin to a queen and Robbie is coming off for me what was one of the best performances of 2018 in I, Tonya.

Essentially, both women are fantastic in this film. Ronan looks young and innocent and can be playful with her friends but from day one is determined and strong. Virtually every man around her, including those on her side, seems to undermine her at every turn, while shouting at her they will insist her emotions have got the better of her and some outright say they will not obey a woman ruler. And she absorbs all of this and carries on.

I think Margot Robbie might have got the more interesting role as a lot more is made is of Elizabeth’s insecurities. She is jealous of Mary’s youth and beauty – especially after illness diminishes her own – and, of course, Mary’s child. On the one hand she wants peace and friendship but is also riven by envy and numerous political problems and Robbie portrays all of this wonderfully.

Is That What Really Happened?

Obviously, Mary Queen of Scots is a real historical figure and the film is based on a history book about Mary, but is this what happened? It needs to be said it is entirely possible to enjoy this film ignoring historical inaccuracies or without knowing any of the history, and while it’s based on history this is not a documentary.

But to those who this will bother (like me) the film is very loose with history and I think the film certainly has an agenda in bolstering the reputation of Queen Mary whilst focusing on some of the negatives of Elizabeth. Certainly, it is hard to imagine the Elizabeth in this film staring down the Spanish Armada. In fairness though, those films have been made and Elizabeth is respected as one of England’s greatest monarchs so touching on her insecurities and failures may just provide a more rounded character.

It is important to periodically reassess the evidence and see if the popular image is accurate and Mary is deserving of that as any other historical figure.

Does It Work?

Ultimately this film is something of a let-down. While the two stars are very good in their roles, the film does not contain the requisite drama to engage the viewer and considering the material they had to work with this is very disappointing. The film had the opportunity to tell the story of two of the most interesting women in the history of the British Isles but just isn’t up to the task.

The difficult relationship between Mary and Elizabeth is handled well and the film makes it clear why they are sometimes desperate to be friends while at others clear enemies. One problem with the film is that the supporting cast’s relationships with the queens are not as well done. Darnley swings dramatically from charming noble to ignorant drunk around Mary and her half-brother is split between seething resentment and familial bonds . The crux is the director has tried to portray these characters in a particular way but is forced by history to make them seemingly act uncharacteristically.

The film does look stunning. The scenery, the sets and especially the costumes are wonderful. Near the end of the film Queen Elizabeth is shown in increasingly extravagant and dazzling outfits – as her own natural beauty fades. The sets of the English and Scottish courts neatly display the disparities between the two kingdoms with the former outshining the later dramatically.

Throughout the film is the issue of women in power. People of both countries complain about their woman rulers, with especially Mary’s ability to rule call into question. Mary is called a harlot, and worse, for the rumours of an affair while I’m quite sure previous kings’ potential infidelities were not used as proof of their inability to govern. The Scottish nobles are constantly dismissive of Mary and on occasion are willing to manhandle her. Mary’s new husband never stops complaining about how Mary swore to obey him but runs the country without her and bristles at the idea that he has a lower status than her.

Overall the film is good and stars put on a masterclass of acting but feels like a missed opportunity for a great film.

Verdict: 3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

Reviews

Review: Outlaw King

November 19, 2018
Warning – there are minor spoilers in this review but as it’s history I don’t think these will surprise anyone.

 

David Mckenzie’s new historical drama about how Robert the Bruce became King of Scotland

What’s Going On?

The film starts with Edward I, King of England, forgiving Scottish lords for rebelling against him. Edward I claimed the Scottish crown after they asked him to decide on should be king and he picked himself (he had no claim to the throne). Not surprisingly many Scottish lords rebelled but were soundly defeated by Edward I. Robert the Bruce, son of a Scottish lord, was one of the leading rebels but he too makes his peace with Edward, possibly only because his father is one of the strongest claimants and they think Edward will make him king. English rule on Scotland is hard with Edward I brutalising Scotland; at one point he refuses to accept surrender from one lord until he’s had a chance to try out his new catapult (this really happened). Eventually, the injustices prove too much to bear and Robert the Bruce rebels despite being hugely outnumbered.

Behind The Scenes

The film is directed by David Mackenzie, who I knew mainly from Hell Or High Water, which is perhaps best described as a modern western, a film I enjoyed a lot. This is a Netflix production and I would say does manage to feel like a “proper” film and not some made-for-tv second rate movie. Obviously, this is based on history and while taking some liberties does a good job of setting the scene and showing how utterly outmatched Robert the Bruce is.

In Front Of The Camera

The film stars Chris Pine as Robert the Bruce and he very much carries the film, it is his story from start to finish. Stephen Dillane is King Edward, probably best known as Stannis Baratheon in Game of Thrones, and it is in many ways a similar performance, certainly not a likeable man but extremely capable. Billy Howle gives a great performance as Prince Edward; an arrogant fool, constantly shoving his exalted status in other people’s face while having mountains of father issues to work through. Florence Pugh takes on the difficult role of Robert’s wife, an Englishwoman who is married to Robert (neither seemed to have much say in it) and displayed the strained circumstances and mixed loyalties she has when her husband rebels.

The Elephant In The Cinema

Inevitably there are going to be comparisons with the hugely successful and Oscar-winning Braveheart. Three of the central characters also appear in that film and it is telling much of the same story but from a different perspective. Braveheart focused on William Wallace who is never actually seen in Outlaw King but his existence is referenced a lot. There are many similarities between the two portrayals of Edward I, both are old but fierce men, with Braveheart’s king being crueller and crazier, seemingly going out of his way to be evil. The big difference is with Prince Edward, in Braveheart a weak and ineffectual man whereas in Outlaw King he is a far more aggressive and warlike man but still was glaring deficits. This change seems to make Prince Edward a more compelling adversary to Robert.

Does It Work?

The film is certainly enjoyable and is a grimmer, less elegant portrayal than many similar films, it feels like 50% of the film is people fighting or walking through mud. Everything and everyone is dirty; even kings. Unavoidably it suffers from the problem that we know what is going to happen but it does as well as it can at maintaining the jeopardy. Certainly, some people will not know the ending or how it all happened. At times Robert is asked specifically how many soldiers he has and you could fit them all on one bus, hardly an army, and it is hard to conceive how he can possibly win. The real problem is one of scale. There is only one large scale battle in the film which is quite possibly the smallest battle in this whole war, with Robert having around 500 men. While this is historically accurate you can’t help but think they chose this battle over, say, the Battle of Bannockburn where Robert had at least ten times that number because the smaller battle would be cheaper. Considering Game of Thrones has battles that feel on a bigger scale this is a real failing with the film. Indeed the film ends with text explaining what happened next and it really feels like they have only told half of Robert’s story.

The viewer’s sympathies do lie with Robert but there is an incident early in the film which does muddy the water a lot. To the filmmaker’s credit, this is something that really happened and permanently tarnished Robert’s reputation and damaged his standing with a lot of people. An equivalent action today would probably be committing a war crime. Robert is portrayed as wanting to act not out of personal ambition but for the good of Scotland and it’s people. In part, though the film makes less of a case for Robert being the good guy but in clearly demonstrating that King Edward and Prince Edward are clearly the bad guys. A good point about the film is I don’t think every English person is shown as thoroughly evil (a problem I think Braveheart has), more than the people in charge have tried to steal Scotland and the foot soldiers are just caught up in it.

Overall I’d say if you like historical dramas you will enjoy this but it certainly isn’t the cultural touchstone something like Braveheart or Gladiator are but in Outlaw King’s defence the film is far more historically accurate than either of those. It’s a two-hour film that was always interesting and enjoyable and a lot of its faults come from comparing it to other films.

Verdict: 3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)