'Mary Queen of Scots' is Everything 'The Favourite' Makes Fun Of
My intention every week with this newsletter is to give you recommendations for good movies you should go see. Mary Queen of Scots is not one of those movies. It is an unequivocally bad movie.
The directorial debut of Josie Rourke is not incompetent, it is simply mishandled. Every scene is actually two scenes running simultaneously, smash-cut together in short 30 second segments back-and-forth, back-and-forth, killing any momentum and taking the viewer out of the moment entirely. The shortcomings of this style are multiplied by a convoluted plot, and a prior knowledge of the machinations of 16th century English politics are practically a prerequisite.
Similar incomprehensibility plagued Netflix's Outlaw King, which leaves me wondering if it's about time Hollywood fell out of love with medieval costume dramas. It's no surprise that a whole crop of these royal court conflicts are popping up now, hoping to capitalize on the enormous success of Game of Thrones. But as is often the case, executives learned all the wrong lessons. They mistook the appeal of great storytelling for an affinity towards corsets and swords and British accents.
This movie leans hard into that aesthetic, giving us an excessive amount of aerial shots of Scottish countryside and extended close ups of people dressed in medieval garb. When the construction of the rest of the project is so flimsy, it's asking an awful lot of the production design to carry the viewer's interest.
The idea that his is somehow a female empowerment movie, as it was marketed, is almost laughable. Saoirse Roanan is undeniably one of the finest young actresses in the world, Margot Robbie is...well...at least very famous, and a movie starring two strong females being directed by a female is unfortunately quite rare. However, I'm not sure the cause of feminism is served by portraying two women who, despite their best efforts, are outmaneuvered and bullied by men throughout the narrative. Their positions of power do little to negate their duties to society as wives and child-bearers, which they complain about but ultimately seem to agree with.
Instead, Rourke seemed determined to produce thinly-veiled commentary on our current political climate. It's hard to ignore the plot line of an ambitious, socially-progressive queen being ousted by a group of brutish, tribal men spreading false rumors (or shall we say fake news). Within the context of a stuffy royal court, the critique falls flat.
If there is any redeemable value to this movie, which I have ranked very near the bottom of the 2018 releases on my running list, it is the way it enriches the experience of watching The Favourite, an 18th century female-led costume drama that is superior in every way. Mary Queen of Scots is the source material that The Favourite subverts, lambastes, and skewers. The stuffiness of royal court is mocked for its ridiculousness, the ambition of political rivalries exposed for its frivolity.
Does any of this squabbling about who sits on the throne really matter? Mary Queen of Scots is committed to convincing you it does, and The Favourite has fun showing you it really doesn't. The sharpness of language, edge of specificity, and mastery of craft in Yorgos Lanthimos' movie would be obvious to even the most unengaged moviegoer. Which is why one of these films is going to be nominated for several Academy Awards, and the other is set to be both a critical failure and a box office flop.
All About Eve (1950)
The best female rivalry movie of all time, for my money, is this Bette Davis-led show business romp. It's a tale as old as time: an aging actress takes an admiring fan under her wing, then grows increasingly jealous as the young starlet steals the spotlight. But the execution here is impeccable, and keeps you hooked from start to finish. All of the characters are hiding their true intentions from each other, leading to some plot twists that you won't see coming. Davis' performance is one for the ages, and the other actors and actresses (who I won't name because I'm certain you haven't heard of them) do an impressive job creating nuanced and complex characters (plus an appearance from a young and incredibly beautiful Marilyn Monroe!).
Obviously audiences at the time loved it, making it the fourth highest grossing movie of 1950. Critics loved it, giving it 14 Oscar nominations and eventually 6 trophies. And movie fans across the generations have loved it, as it continues to be held up as a seminal work of art. I truly cannot recommend it highly enough.
Plus, bonus fact, the behind-the-scenes story of this movie had its own female rivalry, as Bette Davis and Joan Crawford dueled to secure the leading role. Davis and Crawford had the most legendary Hollywood feud of all time, spanning across decades and playing out on the pages of tabloid newspapers. Think Kardashians drama, except, ya know, classier.
Black Swan (2010)
I cheat with my final selection, which is neither "something old" or "something to stream." But the failures of Mary Queen of Scots make me feel the need to offer up a better alternative if you're looking for a dramatic female rivalry movie. I can think of none better than this 2010 offering from Darren Aronofsky, setting Natalie Portman against Mila Kunis in the high stakes world of professional ballet.
It's a reflection on perfection, paranoia, obsession, and the lengths to which compromise ourselves in order to succeed. All of Aronofsky's movies are dark, incredibly tense, and slightly strange. But this one comes together into an exceptional thriller that netted Portman her one and only Oscar win.