Tag Archives: B

MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS

Producer: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner and Debra Hayward
Director: Josie Rourke
Writer: Beau Willimon
Stars: Saoirse Ronan, Margot Robbie, Jack Lowden, Joe Alwyn, David Tennant, Guy Pearce, Gemma Chan, Martin Compston, Ismael Cruz Cordova, Brendan Coyle, Ian Hart, Adrian Lester, James McArdle,Maria-Victoria Dragus, Eileen O'Higgins, Alex Beckett and Simon Russell Beale
Studio: Focus Features

B

The sixteenth-century conflict between Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland, and Elizabeth Tudor, Queen of England, is hardly new to films: from John Ford’s “Mary of Scotland” with Katharine Hepburn and Florence Eldridge in 1936 to Charles Jarrot’s “Mary, Queen of Scots” with Vanessa Redgrave and Glenda Jackson in 1971, the tale has been a big-screen favorite, and television hasn’t ignored it either.

In this new version screenwriter Beau Willimon, working from a book by John Guy, and Josie Rourke, another notable British theatrical director making a film debut, put a decisively feminist spin on their telling of the women’s story, presenting them as responding very differently to the pressures of trying to rule within a male-dominated world—with divergent results. It becomes a tale of what might have been a sisterhood of crowned heads turned into a competition for power that ultimately proved deadly.

To be sure, previous tellings—including Jarrot’s (written by John Hale)—have necessarily pointed to the problems faced by female rulers in an earlier period, but Rourke and Willimon put a spin on the story of Mary and Elizabeth that carries a modern feel in the days of Theresa May (and Hillary Clinton). While Redgrave’s Mary was tremulous, wistful and malleable, Saoirse Ronan presents her as strong-willed, imperious and implacable, even in the face of vitriolic abuse from the likes of fanatical churchmen John Knox (David Tennant), who, after all, famously wrote a jeremiad titled “The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstruous Regiment of Women” even before the widowed Mary returned to Scotland from France to claim her throne in 1561.

But as Willimon shows, Mary’s problems involved many men who surrounded her, jockeying for control. Her half-brother Moray (James McArdle) paid lip service to her but aimed at seizing power. Her marriage to the pleasure-seeking Darnley (Jack Lowden) fed into her desire to strengthen her claim to the English throne (which came through her grandmother Margaret Tudor, daughter of Henry VII), but weakened her hold on Scotland. The murders of both her favorite Rizzio (Ismael Cruz Cordova) and Darnley, along with the determination of her supposedly faithful supporter Bothwell (Martin Compston) to use her for his own political purposes, led to her forced abdication and flight to England in 1568.

Of course Mary’s Catholicism was an obstacle too, not only for the Calvinist Knox but her cousin Elizabeth, who was looked upon by English Catholics as a usurper because of what they saw as her illegitimacy as the daughter of Henry VIII by Anne Boleyn—a marriage the Roman Church did not recognize as valid. Whatever sympathy Elizabeth had for her cousin’s difficulties was certainly undermined by Mary’s decision to reject an offer of marriage from Elizabeth’s favorite (and potential spy) Dudley (Joe Alwyn) in favor of the Catholic Darnley, who also had a claim to the English throne through Margaret Tudor by her second marriage. Elizabeth’s attitude hardened under pressure from her council, most notably her chief minister Cecil (Guy Pearce), and when Mary fled to England expecting support, she was instead confined, only to be eventually executed in 1587 when she was accused—whether accurately or not—of conspiring against the queen.

Rourke and Willimon actually cover this bewilderingly complicated material fairly fully, though in a fashion that—understandably, in view of the director’s stage background—is extremely theatrical. To be sure, the film fails to convey the passage of time very well—it covers more than a quarter of a century, but hardly seems to—and it embraces some inventions that have no historical foundation (like a personal meeting between Mary and Elizabeth that never occurred, though it portrays it in a semi-hallucinatory way; but then the 1971 film did so as well). Overall, though, it certainly follows the record far more accurately than did the recent TV series “Reign” in depicting Mary’s earlier years in France, though that CW program admittedly set a very low bar.

While one might quibble over some historical details, in any event, the film presents Mary’s unhappy story well, in both visual and dramatic terms. The physical production is excellent, with cinematographer John Mathieson’s widescreen images giving the locations an almost tactile feel, and the production design by James Merifield and costumes by Alexandra Byrne evokes the period skillfully. Chris Dickens’ editing moves the complicated play of crosses and double-crosses along nicely, though even with a two-hour running-time some viewers might have some problem keeping up, and Max Richter’s score adds to the ambience.

Of course, the trappings would hardly matter without strong acting. The supporting cast is uniformly fine, though Tennant comes on awfully strong (so did Knox), and Pearce is oddly restrained (it even seems that his lines have been overdubbed). But all of them pale beside the two stars. Robbie gives Elizabeth a steely quality that encapsulates her determination to overcome the efforts of men to manipulate her by, as she admits, becoming manly herself; this queen overcame the prejudices of her time with the same sternness that she did the disfiguring effects of the pox on her face with heavy makeup.

As good as Robbie is, however, it’s Ronan who dominates as the passionate Scottish queen, who proves emotionally unable to take charge over the men around her. The actress, who actually bears a strong resemblance to Mary as she appears in contemporary portraits, delivers a powerhouse turn, forcefully conveying the monarch’s shifting moods and tragic downfall.

Rourke’s take on the Mary-Elizabeth confrontation is unlikely to be the final cinematic word on the subject, but among existing films about the doomed queen of Scots, it’s the finest yet.

THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS

Producer: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, Megan Ellison and Sue Naegle
Director: Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
Writer: Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
Stars: Tim Blake Nelson, James Franco, Liam Neeson, Tom Waits, Zoe Kazan, Billy Heck, Stephen Root, Harry Melling, Tyne Daly, Saul Rubinek, Chelcie Ross, Brendan Gleeson, Jonjo O'Neill, Willie Watson, David Krumholtz, Ralph Ineson, Grainger Hines, Jefferson Mays and Clancy Brown
Studio: Netflix/Annapurna Pictures

B

Joel and Ethan Coen originally planned this western anthology as a Netflix series, but it’s easy to understand why they chose to release it as a theatrical feature: the visuals are so entrancing that they won’t have their full impact even on the largest home screens. Like all omnibus films, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is uneven, but it exhibits the brothers’ quirky sense of humor throughout, as well as their undeniable filmmaking finesse.

The movie takes its title from the first of its six episodes, introduced—like all of them—by a title page from an old book of tall tales. Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson) is a cliché singing cowboy ambling happily across the desert toward a rough town. The white-clad, goofily grinning dude makes his way to the saloon, where he’s accosted by the ruffians who are regulars and proves himself as handy with his gun as he is with his guitar. But another cowboy (Willie Watson)—one whose musical facility lies elsewhere—appears for the inevitable showdown.

The second segment, “Near Algodones,” carries a “Twilight Zone” quality in its ironic twist ending. A gunfighter (James Franco) tries to rob a bank in the middle of nowhere, but the odd old teller (Stephen Root) is more than he can handle. Sentenced to be hanged, he’s saved by the intervention of a band of marauding Indians, and taken on by a cattleman passing by with his herd; but what seems to be a stroke of good fortune turns out to be the exact opposite

Up next is “Meal Ticket,” in which Liam Neeson plays a bargain-basement showman travelling around with his little wagon-stage, which he unpacks wherever there are enough folks to make up an audience that might cough up some tips. His attraction is The Artist (Henry Melling), an armless, legless fellow whose act consists of declaiming everything from Scripture and poetry to the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address. As the audiences grow smaller, however, the impresario begins looking for a new star, and finds a most unlikely one.

The fourth episode is “All Gold Canyon,” set in a paradisiacal valley where an old prospector (Tom Waits) laboriously unearths a rich vein of the glistening wealth. Unfortunately a thief has been observing his work, and intends to profit from it.

“The Girl Who Got Rattled” stars Zoe Kazan as Alice, a demure young woman left alone when her brother dies as they travel west by wagon train. But the train’s scout, Billy Knapp (Bill Heck), becomes enamored of her, and they plan to settle down together, even if Knapp’s departure might disappoint the wagon master Mr. Arthur (Grainger Hines). In the end, a bunch of Indians intervene again, and all plans go awry.

The series closes with “The Mortal Remains,” about a stagecoach ride to a dark destination. The bickering passengers include the snooty wife of a preacher (Tyne Daly), a worldly Frenchman (Saul Rubinek) and a verbose old trapper (Chelcie Ross). Accompanying them are a pair of self-styled bounty hunters (Brendan Gleeson and Jonjo O’Neill) with a body as their baggage.

Each of the half-dozen tales is a combination of snarky humor and dark foreboding, with death always lurking just around the corner as a constant. But unlike Seth MacFarlane, who promised us a million ways to die in the west and just delivered some dumb, clichéd farce, the Coens delve deeper into the grim reality of life and death on the range, and uncover—if not a vein of pure gold—some canny if typically cynical insights, ironically expressed and gorgeously realized in visual terms.

The cast fit themselves snugly into the compositions the brothers so elegantly draw with the aid of production designer Jess Gonchor, costumer Mary Zophres and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel. Nelson, Neeson, Waits and Kazan stand out in the ensemble, but among the others Ross is hilarious as a codger as addicted to the sound of his own voice as the pedant Joseph Finsbury played by Ralph Richardson was in “The Wrong Box,” and at the other end of the spectrum Melling, with his wistful blue eyes, exudes an authentically tragic dimension as the totally dependent Artist. Adding to the effect are Roderick Jaynes’ precisely calibrated editing and a rich score by Carter Burwell that interpolates familiar western tunes.

“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” may be a second-tier Coen brothers film, but their lesser effort easily surpass the best that most filmmakers can manage.