Ian Thomas Malone

A Connecticut Yogi in King Joffrey's Court

mary queen of scots Archive

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December 2018

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A Meandering Narrative Derails the Otherwise Well-Constructed Mary Queen of Scots

Written by , Posted in Blog, Movie Reviews

Despite the literal definition of the genre, almost all biopics offer a false promise by token of their run times. Few two-hour movies can provide a complete portrait of a historical figure’s life. There just isn’t enough time. The best biopics narrow in on a specific period of a person’s story in order to illuminate a broader point about who they were.

Mary Queen of Scots appears aware of this predicament, with all of its trailers spotlighting the troubled relationship between two cousins seemingly destined for turmoil. Much has been said of the historical inaccuracy at the heart of the film’s narrative, the fact that history refutes the idea that Mary and Elizabeth ever met, but this revision is hardly a factor weighing down the film. Much more problematic is the idea that the narrative never seems fully committed to the course it laid out for itself early on.

Somewhere along the way the film decided that the relationship between Mary and Elizabeth wasn’t enough to sustain the entire narrative, but Mary Queen of Scots never really laid down the framework to dedicate much time to anything else. Some attention is given to Mary’s many troubles in Scotland, with seemingly everyone around her conspiring to end her reign, but these scenes can’t shake the aura of filler. There’s nothing really tying any of the political turmoil together besides the history itself, presenting sequences strung together without any hint of a story.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the casting is Mary Queen of Scots biggest strength. Saoirse Ronan plays a charming and relatable Mary. Margot Robbie makes the most of the limited scope Elizabeth is given in the narrative. The rest of the cast, including David Tennant, Guy Pearce, Joe Alwyn, and Gemma Chan all put forth compelling performances in supporting roles, but the acting isn’t the problem. The issue is that the film never gives any of its immense talent anything compelling to do.

As effective as Ronan and Robbie are at garnering sympathy for their character’s positions, such efforts are squandered because the film never really builds toward anything. We know their eventual meeting is going to happen by token of the trailers, but everything else feels like they’re simply going through the motions until that moment comes. Despite being ostensibly the two most powerful people in their realms, both characters are never really shown to be anything more than helpless. You can feel for them, but that’s about all that’s ever asked of the audience. There’s nothing here for anyone to actually root for.

Mary Queen of Scots is a film comprised of beautiful pieces with absolutely zero substance at the center. The costumes are gorgeous and the performances are excellent, but these elements cannot indefinitely sustain the absence of narrative. There’s a lot to appreciate in the film’s diverse casting, with nods to acceptance of homosexuality and gender fluidity, which effectively dispels the notion that inclusion is a distraction in period dramas. Trouble is, the film seems entirely composed of diversion used to substitute for the notion that it actually has a story.

The past few years have offered plenty of reasons to dispel with the occasional public perception that period dramas are dry and boring. Mary Queen of Scots unfortunately plays this trope up quite well. The sum of its many admirable parts don’t add up to an interesting movie, only two hours of watching talented actors try to pull a narrative out of thin air.

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Tuesday

5

May 2015

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Reign Is A (Mostly) Fun Costume Soap Opera

Written by , Posted in Pop Culture

Since I’ve been doing a lot of articles on costume/period dramas, I thought it prudent to feature the only one currently airing on network TV. Reign is best described as a guilty pleasure that’s the offspring of a one night stand between Gossip Girl and The Tudors. Despite not being much of a success with ratings or critics, The CW picked it up for a third season despite possessing what’s probably the deepest roster in the network’s history. Perhaps some executives couldn’t get enough of the “historical” telling of Mary, Queen of Scots’ time in France.

Reign’s premise is fairly simple. It tells a story (I hesitate to use the word “the” given the historical inaccuracies) of the relationship between Francis II of France and Mary, Queen of Scots. If the writers know any of the actual history beyond what can be read on Wikipedia, it doesn’t show. In fact, if the writers’ training consists of anything other than watching old episodes of Melrose Place and The O.C., that doesn’t really show either.

Despite this, there’s something oddly endearing about the show. The plots are stupid, but Reign rarely tries to hide this fact. This is a soap opera that knows exactly what it is. Beautiful people scheme in a beautiful castle. That’s Reign in a nutshell.

Reign is carried by the talent of its two lead actresses. Adelaide Kane and Megan Follows dance circles around the rest of the cast as Mary, Queen of Scots and Catherine de’ Medici. Tory Regbo plays a rather spineless King Francis and Torrance Combs has had very little to do since season one as Francis’ bastard brother Bash. Queen Mary’s ladies maids/ladies in waiting all occupy various degrees of odiousness.

Which is why I enjoy it. We’re in the era of costume/period dramas. Reign has its place in the circle of life as the only one regularly airing on network TV. Being on The CW means that it’s going to be more soap operatic than it would be if it aired on the other networks, assuming it wasn’t intended to be a comedy like Galavant, but that’s okay too. We don’t really need network rip-offs of Game of Thrones, Outlander, and Vikings that can’t have excessive violence or nudity because of the FCC.

Granted, Reign’s status as a guilty pleasure show has been called into question with a pretty subpar second season. I blame that on the episode count. Twenty-two episodes a season is tough for most shows, let alone a costume drama. The plot has moved at a glacier pace since the death of King Henry, often recycling stories every three episodes or so. Quality has never been Reign’s strong suit, but even the melodrama has suffered with so little progression.

It’s hard to see Reign lasting very long past season three. History told us that already given the brevity of Francis and Mary’s marriage, but I’m not sure how relevant that is to this show. The CW’s line-up is pretty stacked, leaving little room for an expensive show with sagging ratings.

From the show’s third episode, which features sparring match between King Henry and Bash played to Bastille’s hit “Pompeii,” you could tell exactly what Reign was going to be. Popcorn fluff. Better that than most of what’s currently on network TV. You could certainly make the case that The CW is delivering what its audience wants better than NBC or ABC (Fox has Empire and CBS has all its procedurals so I’ll give them passes).

Reign is (usually) fun. That’s all it needs to be. One should not look to The CW for a history lesson. There are these things called books, which are good for that kind of stuff.

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