The Two Reviews: Mary Queen of Scots and The Front Runner

Mary Queen of Scots (2018 Focus Features and Working Title Films)
Directed by Josie Rourke. Featuring Saoirse Ronan, Margot Robbie, David Tennant, Guy Pearce, Jack Lowden and Joe Alwyn.

Mary Queen of Scots is a period drama set in the second half of the 16th Century about the troubled reign of Queen Mary of Scotland and her respectful but strained relationship with her cousin Elizabeth, the Queen of England. Returning to Scotland from the country of her upbringing, France, Mary resumes her role as Queen of Scotland. But she has landed in a country divided between Protestants and Catholics, and in which various political factions and changing allegiances vie for the upper hand in the Royal Court. An awkward peace with England, with a Protestant Queen who also reigns in a divided land, threatens to collapse into bloodshed and rebellion. Both Mary and Elizabeth reign in a fractious state of affairs in which no shortage of other national, local and religious interests seek to influence their rule. A large part of the film is taken up with the relationship of the two Monarchs; and showing a likeness and a contrast in their personas and their manner of rule.

Mary Queen of Scots 5

There are good and bad things to be said about this film, but overall it is a film worth seeing. To start, it is a scenic and light-splendid film, shot by cinematographer John Mathieson. Great indoor scenes of muted colour are matched with sun-drenched and cloud-covered outdoor landscape scenes. There are wonderful portrait shots, and excellent lighting throughout the entire film. I also have to say that the make-up is exceptionally good. Costumes and sets, as you might expect, are sumptuous and rustic as it fits the scene and the players. Editing, sound and score are all good. The acting is good, but the stand out performances are Margot Robbie as Elizabeth and David Tennant as the woman-hating John Knox.

There are quite a few historical inaccuracies, which are a little frustrating, but they are no more than any other film of the period. They all paint a colourful canvass over the top of a shaky historic frame. But it is a cinematic drama for a modern audience, so I am not so daunted by the historical liberties. Its central theme is on two intelligent and powerful women who are ‘alone’ in a world of men, with their violent and power-grasping agendas. And, although that is a commendable theme for a modern film, it tends to shift the focus away from their own shrewd politics and ruthless manoeuvrings to soap opera-like mush. The script (it is a script-heavy film) is consequently a mix of walk-through lines, clichéd moments of nobility but occasional tight and intelligent dialogue. Although decent in parts, the script is a weakness in the film. And it is perhaps the script that hinders Saoirse Ronan from really pulling off a convincing defiant Mary. She’s okay but I kept thinking, ‘Oh, David Tennant is such a great baddy, and Margot Robbie shows a very human side to Elizabeth, but Ronan is kind of talking the lines’. And although Robbie portrays a good Elizabeth, she is so vulnerable, which is the exact opposite of every historic account that underlies her deep intelligence, and pragmatic but ruthless politics. But…perhaps what I did like about the script is that it didn’t race down the bravado Nationalist/Martyr highway so common in Hollywood period films (though there is a little) but highlighted the deeply divided loyalties within Scotland and England in which allegiance had little to do with National sentiment but were centred on religious affiliations (the masses were screwed in both countries).

This is director Josie Rourke’s debut film. It is a commendable first film, and I hope to see more of her productions in the future. Despite the violence of the times, Rourke keeps the bloodshed and battle scenes in perspective; not ignoring them, but placing emphasis on political intrigue and the strength of women in a man’s world. I think I am disappointed that this is not a better film, because it really had the potential to be an outstanding epic, but the script just doesn’t cut the mustard. There are some nice touches but at other times I rolled my eyes at cinematic clichés. However, the cast and all technical aspects of the film are very good. If you see two or three films this year, give this one a miss. If you see six or more, watch Mary Queen of Scots.

Reviewed by Robin Stevens – Rated 3/5

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The Front Runner (2018 Bron Studios and Stage 6 Films)
Directed by Jason Reitman. Featuring Hugh Jackman, Vera Farmiga, J.K. Simmons & Sara Paxton.

The Front Runner is a political drama about the sudden fall of US Senate candidate Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman) in the 1988 Democrat Presidential nomination run-offs. Hart was the clear front runner in the Democrats, and just weeks away from securing the presidential nomination endorsement for the up-coming election, when the media exposed, and sensationalised beyond known facts, Hart in an extramarital scandal. The media frenzy and intrusion into his family life resulted in Hart withdrawing his candidacy.

Front Runner 1

This is one of a number of recent American films with commentary or observations on American politics and social issues by focussing on real events and/or real people in the past few decades. In this instance, a media whipped-up scandal 30 years ago that brought down a leading contender for the Democratic nomination and most likely destined to be the next US President. The issue that brought him down was a ‘moral’ issue and it questions ‘transparency’ deep into his private life; that is, around sexual relations outside marriage. The point is made in the film that half of the senators would be in trouble if that was the measuring bar. But it brought down Hart. By contrast in 2017, Trump rolls around in a swirl of sexual misconduct and offensive behaviour towards women and numerous allegations of abuse, but he still became President of the United States. In post-production interviews, director and co-writer Jason Reitman says the film poses questions rather than provides answers or a clear position. He hopes people will leave the cinema and engage in a dialogue about American politics, the role of the media and about the women who are ‘collateral damage’. Hugh Jackman and Sara Paxton, the two actors that play Hart and Donna Rice at the centre of the scandal, both say that the film highlights ‘how we got here now’ with regard to the state of politics and media in the US and other developed countries.

In the film, the female casualties, Rice, Hart’s wife Lee (Farmiga) and daughter Andrea (Kaitlyn Dever), are treated with a level of empathy by the film-makers, noting their appalling treatment by a wolf-like media frenzy and insensitive political lobbyists and ‘fix it’ men. And it is perhaps worth noting that to this day Hart and Rice still deny any sexual involvement, and no evidence to the contrary is entirely convincing. Rather there was a whiff of it. This film was released weeks after Vice, another political drama mostly set in same decade as here. But whereas Vice is unmistakable in its searing critique of American political machinations and media complicity, The Front Runner comes in trailing behind on these issues.

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Hugh Jackman is outstanding and is an entirely convincing Gary Hart. Vera Farmiga matches him for the few scenes that she’s in. And the rest of the cast is okay. But I don’t think anyone outside of the US would want to watch this film if it wasn’t for Jackman. The film isn’t exactly clichéd but it does sort of run through scenes in a matter-of-fact kind of way. For example, scenes of the political campaign office where people shout over each other, or a media scrum, or an awkward media interview are all fine, but they are all kind of run of the mill too. Technical aspects of the film are also fine, but nothing stands out other than the performance of Jackman himself. It’s only one month into 2019 and of the few films I have seen so far this year this one is not the front runner!

Reviewed by Robin Stevens – Rated 2.5/5

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