Released: 17th January
Seen: 20th January
This year has only just begun and we have two historical epics revolving around queens. One of them was a slightly slow but none-the-less entertaining jaunt through the final years of a monarch, torn between her lesbian lovers that decided to portray their sexuality as a natural element of their lives without demonization of any kind. Then there’s one, where it would be fair to say that a veneer of progressivism that is undone by the use of one of the most horrible tropes that has been a part of the landscape for a while and because I can’t help myself. I’m going to rant about it a considerable amount once we’re through the basic positives and plotline stuff. Strap yourselves in kids; this one’s going to be a ride.
Mary, Queen of Scotland (Saoirse Ronan) has returned from France after the death of her first husband and has her eyes set on being the best queen she could be, while also claiming her rightful place as successor to the throne of England. The current queen, Queen Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie) is unwilling to make that succession official and fears that Mary’s claim to the throne will be a threat. In order to take out that threat, Elizabeth is willing to try many things – from marrying Mary to a commoner to war, if it must come to that. While all this is going on John Knox (David Tennant), a protestant cleric who was removed from the court of Elizabeth, has decided to use his influence from the pulpit to spread wicked words about the women in charge. It’s a battle between women and men, Protestants and Catholics, right and wrong, England and Scotland.
The performances by this cast are truly incredible. Margot Robbie continues to be one of the most incredible actresses working today who can seemingly do anything that she’s tasked with doing. Her performance is one of such strength, even while she’s playing a woman infected with the pox. It’s hard to deny that she’s truly become one of the greatest leading women of our time. Same with Saoirse, who delivers the performance that holds the entire film together with her immaculate portrayal of Mary. This shouldn’t be a shock to anyone who saw Lady Bird where she basically stole everyone’s hearts but here she does it again, only more so. There are also just some great performances from the supporting cast, in particular, David Tennant as John Knox, a man who abuses the word of god so much that he might as well be a televangelist. It’s a stunning performance that shows who the real formidable foe is.
I also have to admit this film’s visuals are stunning, some of the shots make you sit back in your seat and gasp for air. The iconic shot from the trailer of Mary being stripped of her black dress to reveal a blood red gown is an image that plays perfectly with framing and colour, and that happens throughout the film. While the colour tone for a lot of the film is a mixture of drab dull tones, the splashes of brighter colours grab your eye and really make you pay attention. Honestly, I could just watch this film with the sound off and stare happily at the imagery… but then I’d have to see this film again and considering its overuse of a certain specific cliche, I don’t know if I can do that.
Bury Your Gays is a term that has been used a lot lately, you might remember a major fallout when a main lesbian character in the show “The 100” was killed casually without a second thought. The trope refers to the idea that gay people must die in order to advance heterosexual narratives. Before I delve into this, I need to state explicitly that this does not mean you can never kill a gay character, you absolutely can. In fiction, there are times when characters die and sometimes those characters will be same-sex attracted and there is nothing wrong with that. However, there is something wrong when a character is killed explicitly due to their sexuality, their death is only there in order to advance the plot of a heterosexual character and their death is made out to be something other than a normal death. This happens on several occasions in this movie. While there are battle scenes where we can assume someone dies, the camera never lingers on those deaths and it’s actually possible to pretend that no one in those battle scenes got so much as a paper cut. When it comes to the deaths of the gay characters, it’s brutal and up close and visceral. We see the life leave their eyes and each one is explicitly due to their sexuality.
Now, because this film is a biopic, it is absolutely possible that this is just how it happened… I mean, it would be if there was any evidence that one of these characters existed, but to my knowledge one of the gay men is a creation of the film purely for a dramatic moment (Though if I’m wrong and some historian knows better, correct me). Even if every character that we see brutally killed on screen was an actual gay person in the era this film is set in and they died for being gay, the fact that they are the only gays in the movie and are killed in front of us while no one else gets that treatment is a major problem. Especially for a film that espouses such progressive ideas. A charming scene where a male character dons a dress and is told by Mary that he can be whoever he truly is becomes uncomfortable when moments later that very same idea is ignored because we need Mary to be super upset and the easiest way to do that involves a shovel and a gay. Had they maybe not shown every single gay death and ignored those of the straight people, I could ignore this issue. If the deaths of the gay characters were just deaths in a battle and not plot points that explicitly are used to create the downfall of the main character I might be OK, but it’s not alright nor is it OK, it’s just a painfully overused trope that needs to stop being used.
What we have here is a really good film with great writing, stunning visuals and a talented cast that face plants hard as it possibly can by indulging in easily the most depressing of homophobic tropes while also trying to condemn homophobia. It left a sour taste in my mouth and while I might like most of this film, I can’t really give it all the praise I’d like to because that trope is one that I can’t believe no one spotted at any point while this was being made. While I can’t say it’s a bad film, I can say it disappointed me which might be the harshest thing I can say about it.