‘Mary Queen of Scots’ wastes potential due to choppy writing

by Sebastian Wurzrainer | 1/8/19 2:30am

In his video “Ludonarrative Dissonance,” film essayist Dan Olson advocates the use of the term “Cinemanarrative Dissonance.” The term describes when an aspect of a film flounders because two or more creative departments did competent work that was nevertheless contradictory due to the lack of a strong, unified vision for the overall product. “Mary Queen of Scots” is full of competent, occasionally even inspired, moments that nonetheless collapse because the film is the new poster child for cinemanarrative dissonance. The film is never truly terrible because everyone in front of and behind the camera is trying; they just never seem to be on the same page.

While it’s impossible to know what exactly went on behind the scenes, I suspect that much of the fault lies with the origin point: the screenplay. Written by Beau Willimon, it chronicles Mary Stuart’s return to her native Scotland in 1561 to reclaim her throne and her subsequent friendship and enmity with Queen Elizabeth I. The problem, put simply, is that Willimon appears to be writing for the stage; the film is a jumble of discrete scenes, each with the sole function of re-enacting an important moment from Mary’s life. Yet Willimon never really finds a through-line, nor does he take the time to flesh out his characters beyond the basics that one could glean by skimming a Wikipedia page.

For example, early in the film, Mary’s half-brother James confronts her in court and abandons her cause after a heated disagreement. The scene ends with him and his men streaming out of the room. In a better film, James’s motivations, his drive and his conflict with Mary might have been better developed. What he and his faction stood for might have actually meant something to the audience. Instead, it feels like James exits stage left for a little bit because Willimon read about it while skimming a history book. Indeed, the entire screenplay functions more like a Scottish history cliff notes than a fully developed cinematic treatment.

This is made all the worse because there’s plenty of dense thematic material that the film could tackle. Issues of gender, religion, power and the loyalties owed to family vs. royalty are all essential to the DNA of the story of Mary Queen of Scots. And what is the point of a historical drama like this if not to animate history in a way that feels alive and present? Instead, the screenplay acknowledges the existence of these topics without ever really commenting on them. It is aware enough to realize that both Mary and Elizabeth struggled uniquely as female monarchs in a patriarchal society, but not aware enough to see how relevant that topic could feel if treated with some vitality.

In short, the screenplay is a mess, and it feels as though the cinemanarrative dissonance so prevalent throughout the film arose because all the other creative departments were trying desperately to compensate. Consider, for instance, the way the editing tries and fails to invigorate the narrative structure. For whatever reason, someone behind the scenes decided that “Mary Queen of Scots” ought to be modeled after a Christopher Nolan film, complete with non-linear sleights of hand and an austere atmosphere. In particular, the film tries hard to imitate Nolan’s characteristic parallel editing. While Nolan has the capacity to blend multiple scenes seamlessly, fluidly highlighting the parallels between the different strands, “Mary Queen of Scots” jolts around unevenly like a drunk because Willimon’s screenplay isn’t well suited to parallel editing. Like I said, it comes across like a stage play, such to the extent that you can practically feel when the lights are meant to go down so the stage hands can reset for the next scene. Trying to turn that into a Nolan film is nigh impossible because the scenes don’t lend themselves well to being chopped into little pieces and woven together with other scenes. As a result, the viewers aren’t so much blown away by the ingenuity of the ham-handed parallels that the film is trying to establish between Mary and Elizabeth. Rather, they’re distracted by a smattering of truly odd editing choices.

I’ve only begun to scratch the surface here. Sadly, I think a full autopsy of the film could productively reveal how much could have gone right and why it didn’t. Nevertheless, there’s one last example of cinemanarrative dissonance I’d like to discuss, and it pertains to the casting. To be clear, the main cast is perfectly adequate. Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie portraying Mary Queen of Scots and Queen Elizabeth, respectively, might be hoping for Oscar nominations, but thankfully their performances aren’t desperately showy in the way Oscar bait performance can often be. Their casting isn’t really the issue, at least not directly.

Throughout the film, historical figures who would have been unquestionably white are played by actors of color. This isn’t a problem. In fact, it’s conceptually excellent. It feels as though someone watched “Hamilton” and rightly realized that “historical accuracy” is frequently ludicrous code for “the actors all have to be white, which conveniently allows us to dodge criticism when people complain about the lack of diversity in our production.” The problem with “Mary Queen of Scots,” however, is that every other aspect of the film screams “historical accuracy.” The costumes, props and sets all suggest the goal of historical accuracy. And each of those departments does good work in their own right. But their work is deeply at odds with the casting department’s laudable decisions to find non-white actors precisely because the film is so timid about that decision. While watching the film, one should be thinking, “Wow, I’m really glad they cast non-white actors in these roles and I hope future historical dramas follow suit.” But because the film never stylistically commits, one is really left thinking, “Huh, is there something about Scottish history that I don’t know? Was this intentional? And if so, why did they only cast the minor characters with the occasional actor of color, and not the leads?” At least casting non-white actors as Mary or Elizabeth or, here’s a crazy idea, both! would have planted a firm, irrefutable flag in the ground. I dwell on this problem because it is so emblematic of the entire film; good ideas get buried beneath a disjointed execution that was doomed from the start by a bad screenplay and a lack of unifying vision.