Film of the week: Saoirse shines in a game of thrones
Ronan totally dominates this brooding and powerful historical drama, says Paul Whitington
On August 19, 1561, a pale and slender young woman arrived on the shores of Leith, not far from the modern city of Edinburgh. Mary Stuart was just 18, and had spent much of her life in the French court, but now returned to Scotland to claim the kingdom that was rightfully hers. The country she sought to rule was riven (then and long thereafter) by sectarian hatred and violence, and the French-speaking, Catholic Mary was the devil incarnate to puritan zealots like John Knox, who wanted rid of her.
Even members of Mary's own family began to scheme against her, and her return caused deep unease south of the border, where her possible claim on the English throne worried Queen Elizabeth's slippery entourage. Underestimated by all parties, surrounded on all sides by enemies, Mary turned out to be a formidable and determined young woman who fought her corner long and hard before the tide of history consumed her.
She's been played over the years by some heavy-hitting actors, from Glenda Jackson and Helen Mirren to Katharine Hepburn but, up till now, has mainly been presented to us as a victim, a papist dupe, a wavering impediment to Queen Elizabeth's glorious reign. In Josie Rourke's film, Mary takes centre stage.
Saoirse Ronan's portrayal of her is a fascinating one. In recent years, as her talent has blossomed, Ronan has shown her range by playing a rebellious schoolgirl (Lady Bird), a sexually repressed 1960s British woman (On Chesil Beach), a homesick Irish emigrant (Brooklyn).
Mary Queen Of Scots marks another departure for her, a more arch and demanding role at the centre of a vast and lavish period movie. It would be easy for a young actor to get lost in the costumes and speechifying, but this is Saoirse, and her performance has a raw and ruthless focus that makes it entirely compelling.
When she returns to court, Mary must first face down her half-brother James, Earl of Moray, who's been ruling as regent and is not about to lightly relinquish the Scottish throne to a slip of a girl.
He will be dismissively swept aside, but a more implacable enemy soon emerges in the form of John Knox, the tub-thumping fundamentalist who's played here with commendable sourness by David Tennant, whose watchful face is artfully concealed by a frightful, righteous beard. His brimstone speeches will help turn the Scottish people against their ruler and, meanwhile, Elizabeth's principal advisor William Cecil (Guy Pearce) has become convinced that the menace of Mary must be contained.
His queen is without child, and when Mary marries a ne'er-do-well called Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden), alarm bells are raised in London as any male issue of that union would then have primary claim on the English throne. Cue no end of Machiavellian scheming, which is all grist to the mill of the film's screenwriter Beau Willimon, creator of House Of Cards.
Margot Robbie plays Elizabeth, a thankless task as the film seems determined to see things exclusively from Mary's point of view. Looking as dowdy as Robbie is capable of looking, Elizabeth fumes and dons a veil after contracting the pox, and looks suitably glum as her advisers try to bully her into marrying and securing the Tudor dynasty. But thanks to the lopsided script, she never fully achieves three dimensions. Her moment in the sun does come when Willimon engineers a dramatic encounter between the two monarchs that never actually happened (they may never have met at all). Here, they come face to face in a rural laundry, and talk at odds through drying sheets. It's a clumsy metaphor for the forces that divide them, and even here Robbie wilts before the sheer force of Ronan's performance.
Her Mary positively quivers with pride and an overweening sense of entitlement, but time and again this hubris will prevent her from escaping the tightening Tudor knot. The film itself is sombre, sedately paced, beautifully photographed if a little stagey at times (Josie Rourke's background is in theatre).
But the script is good, there are some nicely pitched dramatic scenes, and Alexandra Byrne's costumes have a clean, couturish feel. This might not be an entirely accurate history lesson, but it's certainly an entertaining one, and Ronan's performance is something special.
Mary Queen Of Scots (15A 124mins) - 4 stars
Films coming soon...
Vice (Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Sam Rockwell, Steve Carell); Destroyer (Nicole Kidman, Toby Kebbell, Sebastian Stan); Second Act (Jennifer Lopez, Vanessa Hudgens); The Mule (Clint Eastwood, Bradley Cooper, Laurence Fishburne)
The Critics: Your guide to movies, music and more...
Beautiful Boy (15A, 95mins) - 4 stars
Steve Carell is everywhere at the minute, and he's at his very best in this moving drama based on the true story of a father and his drug-addicted son. Despite his parents' divorce, Nic Sheff (Timothée Chalamet) seems to have grown up into a well-adjusted young man. But when he develops a crystal meth addiction, he and his family enter an extended nightmare. Despite its slightly dreamy aesthetic, Felix Van Groeningen's film unstintingly explores the strange world of addiction therapy, which at one point boils down to a cold-blooded severing of ties. It's a moving film, bolstered by two fine performances.
Glass (15A 129mins) - 2 stars
Another trip inside the strange mind of M. Night Shyamalan, Glass is a sequel to his 2016 film Split, and his 2000 film Unbreakable. In the latter movie, Bruce Willis played a man who discovers superhuman strength after surviving a train crash. In Split, we met Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy), a maniac with multiple personalities who can walk on ceilings. In Glass, their stories merge when they're taken to a sinister asylum. Samuel L Jackson co-stars in a film that might be exploring the effect of comic books on human philosophy. Hard to know how to describe it, but the phrase grandiose nonsense springs to mind.
Monsters and Men (15A 95mins) - 3 stars
Police violence against African-Americans has become a recurring theme in US cinema of late, and in Reinaldo Marcus Green's drama, the issue is explored, Rashomon-like, from multiple angles. When Brooklyn man Manny (Anthony Ramos) witnesses the fatal police shooting of a friend, he films it on his phone, but if he uploads the footage, he may become a target himself. Meanwhile, a black cop (John David Washington) feels deeply uneasy about the event, and a promising baseball player is politicised by it. Monsters And Men is well made but rather dull, and all the characters feel like adjuncts of an argument rather than actual people.