If there’s one universal constant in the world of film, it’s that movies based on video games will not be good. From Mario to Mortal Kombat, video game movies stink and it seems there is very little we can do to stop that. But why are they so bad? There are a lot of different theories out there. And today, I’m going to throw my hat into the ring and add my personal theory as to why video game movies tend to be bad. And to back my theory up, I will be using three different movies with one constant between them: Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
Yes, The Rock. During his professional wrestling and acting career he managed to star in three different video game movies. One of them was an absolutely terrible action flick. The second was better, but still a pretty mediocre action film. The third movie happens to be the second best video game movie ever made. This in spite of of the fact that it doesn’t quite measure up to the emotional weight or skill of the first one. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start with the bad movie first, and also one of the first ones Dwayne Johnson worked on: Doom.
The Rock plays “Sarge,” the leader of a a group of Marines in the year 2026. After receiving a distress signal from a research base on Mars, he leads a team (Consisting of ‘Destroyer’, ‘Mac’, ‘Goat’, ‘Portman’, ‘The Kid’, ‘Duke’, and ‘Reaper’) to find out what happened. After arriving and meeting up with Reaper’s sister, the marines find the base under attack by mutants. They have to fight to survive the attacking mutants along with dissension and insanity within their ranks.
The Universal Logo isn’t the traditional earth. Instead, its an image of Mars. That’s kind of clever. The character of Dr. Carmack is very clearly named after John Carmack, which was also a nice touch. The physical design of the Pinkie is neat, even if the fight itself isn’t exactly spectacular. But we’ll get to that in a moment.
Where do I even begin? The bad science on display with these mutants being humans that have an extra chromosome pair? The lackluster fights where monsters are either completely invincible or go down with with a single bullet? The complete lack of follow-up given to some side plots, such as The Kid taking some sort of drug to help him stay ‘sharp’, but never really following up on that afterwards? Perhaps the worst part is Portman, who goes down as one of the most disgusting characters in a film ever. At the very start of the movie, less than ten minutes in, he’s asked how he’ll spend his leave. “Locked in a hotel room with a bottle of tequila and three she-boys!” is his response and even before the words had completely left his mouth, I wanted to see him dead.
How does it compare to the video game its based on?
The Doom movie’s main problem, aside from being cheap and trying to be a Predator rip-off, is that it’s afraid of its source material. One of the reasons that the 2016 reboot of the Doom franchise was so well received was that it wasn’t afraid to embrace the silliness and camp of the initial concept (a demonic invasion of Mars) while at the same time taking time to build a serious world and give some genuine pathos to the main character. When he wasn’t fist bumping little toy action figures, of course.
The Doom movie, by contrast, has the trappings of the game but at the last minute either tones them down or removes them entirely. Mutants replace demons. The Pinkie, despite being a visually striking redesign and something I’d like to see in the game series, is not killed by the chainsaw that Reaper picked up earlier in the fight, but by a single bullet to the head. The extended first person sequence towards the end of the movie looks nothing like the gameplay of any Doom game. Sarge fires the BFG three times in the entire movie and each time it misses its target. Perhaps worst of all, the final fight in the movie between an evil Sarge and a good guy Reaper…is a fist fight. They both specifically drop their weapons to engage in a fist fight. If that doesn’t go against the spirit of Doom, I don’t know what does.
Our next movie is less afraid to be silly. Unfortunately, it still has problems of its own.
The Rock stars as Davis Okoye, a former US Army Special Forces soldier who now works as a primatologist in California. He works most closely with George, a rare albino gorilla he rescued from poachers years ago and who understands sign language. One night, George investigates debris from from a space station that landed in his enclosure. He becomes infected by a pathogen created by an amoral genetics company. The pathogen causes George to grow in size and aggression. Can Davis save his friend and help stop two other animals exposed to the pathogen from going on a rampage?
This movie was made almost thirteen years after the Doom movie, and you can tell that Dwayne Johnson has gotten much more comfortable as an actor. His delivery is more natural and the jokes he tells are quite good. In addition to that, this movie has an actual budget for special effects and uses it well, with a good looking fight between the three giant monsters. I was tickled by how many attack helicopters there were in the movie. You hardly ever see them in action movies like this.
The movie isn’t without its flaws. The antagonists are flat and might as well not even exist for all they actually do. A good number of the supporting cast in general tend to be non-entities after saying their one line. A few of them seem like they are being built up for more of a role, but vanish after their sole scene. In addition, while a good number of the jokes land, there are more than a few that fail to produce any laughter. And the government official (played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan) who becomes an ally? He’s a fine enough character, but I never want to hear his Southern accent again.
How does it compare to the game its based on?
Rampage is better than Doom by any standard. Its a better action movie, has better effects, and the acting is probably twice as good. It’s even better from a video game standpoint, as at least things that happen in the movie happen in the game. But…that’s about it. They happen. There’s no real justification for why they happen. And when there is, the action that follows is almost…mean coming from a protagonist. The movie is afraid to really embrace the carnage that made the original Rampage fun to play. In the game, you’d smash up skyscrapers and cars and eat people by the dozens for bonus points. In the movie, while there is plenty of smashing, its not quite as…joyous as it is in the game.
When I saw the movie for the first time, I compared it with my friends to flavorless instant ramen. I think that’s an apt comparison. It’ll fill you up for a bit, but there’s nothing to really remember it by. This stands in stark contrast to our last movie, which may not be a ‘great’ movie, but is a great video game movie.
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017)
Spencer Gilpin is a shy, nervous high school student, who, along with his friend and two female students, starts up a video game he found in the school’s basement. When he does so, he and his friends find themselves transported to Jumanji and inhabiting the bodies of the avatars they chose. Spencer is “Dr. Smolder Bravestone” played by The Rock. Together with his friends, he must find a way to win the game and escape Jumanji with their lives.
Like Rampage, this movie boasts a great performance from all of its actors. Dwayne Johnson is totally on point playing an awkward teenage boy. And Jack Black’s performance as a slightly snooty stuck up teenage girl is truly a wonder to behold. In addition to this, the special effects are top notch, and the humor lands nearly 99% of the time. And while it doesn’t quite match the original movie in terms of pathos (we’ll go over that in a second), it does have great action scenes that more than match the original movie.
While there’s not much to complain about with this movie, there are a couple of weak points. The first, as I mentioned in the previous paragraph, is that Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle lacks a lot of the emotional weight of the first movie. While there are a few sad scenes, its strictly an action movie, which prevent it from being equal to the first one. And there are points where the plot becomes muddled and honestly doesn’t always make a whole lot of sense. In addition to the slightly muddy plot, the characters themselves are very tropey. These particular arcs have been done before, and while they play with the formula a bit and have the characters at least be aware of the tropes, the people in the audience have still seen them before.
How does it compare to the game its based on?
Now, I can hear some of you right now. “This is a cop out! Jumanji isn’t based on a video game at all!” And that’s true. There is no specific game that Jumanji is based on. Of course, people say the same thing about the best video game movie ever made: Wreck-It Ralph. My theory is that Jumanji is a better movie for not being based on any one video game and therefore can reference them all. Not only that, but it also embraces some of the camp and silliness that all video games have.
One of the best jokes in the movie comes after the protagonists are rescued by Nigel (played by Rhys Darby). Nigel begins to tell them the backstory of the game, and after the protagonists try to ask him a question not related to the story, Nigel begins his spiel again. Spencer points out that this is an NPC. He doesn’t have any other dialogue other than the quest dialogue and won’t be able to tell them anything else until they accept the quest. It’s that playful, slightly joking but still affectionate attitude towards the subject matter that’s missing from nearly all other video game movies. Even the most serious video game still has certain conventions, and most video game movies don’t respect that. Yes, it’s played for laughs in this case, but it doesn’t have to be. All that’s needed is a respect for the source material you’re working with.
Of course, sometimes the material you have really doesn’t fit a movie’s structure. And that’s another strength Jumanji has over the two previous movies I mentioned. Because its not based around a single property, Jumanji isn’t limited to having its story be about one thing. Or having to use a specific item or plot device. Its free to pick whatever best fits the specific scene or plot at that moment. Having this freedom is great, and it’s what elevates this movie above most other video game films.
“Can you see what The Rock…is playing?”
According to IMDB, Dwayne Johnson hasn’t finished with video game based movies quite yet. Indeed, he’s working on a sequel to Jumanji right now. And that’s great. If the second Jumanji movie is as good as the first one and keeps the same tone towards video games, I can rest assured that my theory about video game movies still works. And if its not? Well, despite how terrible Doom was and how mediocre I felt Rampage was, both of those movies still had The Rock in them. And no matter if his acting is good, or so bad its good, it’s always enjoyable to watch.
Images courtesy of Columbia Pictures, John Wells Productions, and New Line Cinema
‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’ is a Stylish Deconstructionist Dazzler
While watching Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse it occurred to me how narrow-minded and timid studios are when it comes to thinking of new ways to tell stories. Yes, I already knew this, but sometimes, it takes a movie like Into the Spider-Verse to throw it into sharp relief.
More and more audiences have been noticing the staleness, in both DC and Marvel, in how they frame their action scenes as well as their stories. Marvel has ushered in a new age of the studio as the auteur and in the process brought back the assembly line production of the olden days of Hollywood. They’ve reproduced the efficiency and the functionality of the system, but they’ve also little care or worry about the content or the style.
I mention all of this because Into the Spider-Verse is such a breath of fresh air, not just for the genre, but for the form as well. Pixar’s animation is flawless, but their prowess seems to more and more lie in animating every blade of grass and strand of hair. It’s gorgeous, but the animation is supposed to free us from reality not reproduce it so faithfully we can’t tell the difference.
Into the Spider-Verse is never ashamed of its cartoon roots and in fact leans into its surrealism to great effect. Comics and cartoons are two sides of the same coin; with each form almost an extension of other. Both lack a fidelity to the laws of physics most movies are wed to while also being able to play with time in a more abstract sense than even movies do.
Incredibles 2 was a mess of a movie, but its action was thrilling and inventive because Brad Bird was allowed to handle the visual depiction himself without being forced to hand it over to a separate department. Into the Spider-Verse isn’t a mess and is an exhilarating spectacle to behold with a script chock full of gonzo bonkers storytelling twists and turns.
Phil Lord and Christopher Miller are the ones getting all the love and kudos. While Lord helped write the screenplay along with Rodney Rothman and Peter Ramsey; and Miller helped produce the film; they are not the names that you should be committing to memory. They are the names already known to us, so we cite them over Ramsey, Rothman, and others.
The names on the tip of our tongues should also include Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman; the directors of Into the Spider-Verse. Lord and Miller may have had some input and even helped it get off the ground. But let us not forget the names of Rothman, Ramsey, and Persichetti. Like Tinkers to Evers to Chance, they are a crucial trinity to the success of this groundbreaking and joyous cinematic experiment.
Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), much like Peter Parker (Chris Pine) once was, is just an average kid. Confused and scared, Miles never asked for any of this. But after getting bitten by the infamous radioactive spider, he finds himself thrust into greatness.
A lesser comic book movie would have left it at that and been fine. But Into the Spider-Verse, turns it up to eleven and introduces not just Spider-Men from alternate realities but alternate Peter Parkers. It does so while also, killing off the actual Parker.
In addition to pushing the form into new and exciting places, Into the Spider-Verse, also deconstructs the Spider-Man mythos and Parker himself. Even better it does so without denigrating the actual character. Unlike most deconstructions which believe that in order to look at a character truthfully you have to ground it in “realism.” A realism that isn’t actually realism. More an exaggerated machismo tone hellbent on doing everything the opposite of what we’re used to seeing of the character.
The Spider-Persons of the alternate realities are prisms of the original Peter Parker/Spider-Man. Even Miles is an updated version of the iconic web-slinger. Each version has their own Uncle Ben/Father/Friend who has died. The deaths of Uncle Ben, like the deaths of Jonathan Kent, are not meant to be purely tragic fuel for their angst. They illustrate, each in their own way, a pulsating reminder of there are things you can not control.
In the case of Miles, he has a loving family and is attending a private school for gifted students. Miles has both a father, Jefferson (Brian Tyree Henry), a Black cop and a mother, Rio (Luna Lauren Velez), a nurse. Miles Morales is a rarity; if only because he does not come from a broken home or tragic beginnings to fulfill his destiny. Spider-Man exists and is a real hero until a tragic incident leaving Miles alone to figure out his newfound powers.
Even his Uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali) is unable to help him. Miles is left to stop Wilson Fisk/Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) on his own until he meets Peter Parker (Jake Johnson). Describing the plot of Into the Spider-Verse calls to mind the moment of The Big Lebowski where the Dude intones, “Lotta ins, lotta outs.”
Kingpin wants to open up a door to alternate realities regardless of the cost to the one he’s in. Thus we get a plethora of variations on the Spider-Man character. We get Johnson’s Parker, whose life has taken a few wrong turns. Unshaven, depressed, with a little bit of a belly, he is not the mentor Miles wanted. Divorced and barely making ends meet he arrives in the new dimension in a worn out Spider-Man costume and sweatpants.
Soon they meet Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld), otherwise known to Miles as Gwen Stacy, the cool new girl at school he’s been crushing on. Gwen and Peter make up the basic trio who help Miles as they try to find a way to get them home and stop Kingpin.
It’s hard to describe the joy I had watching Into the Spider-Verse; of seeing a movie relish and lean into its characters and playing with them. Steinfeld’s Gwen is a punky loner who, much like alternate Peter, wants to go in alone. Both have lost someone they love and so believe the job of Spider-Man must be a lonely one.
Miles does not agree. Even after he experiences his own tragic loss, his first instinct is to run to his father. For reasons, you’ll understand after seeing the movie he can’t, but the desire is there. Unlike all the other iterations he doesn’t believe being a hero means going it alone. Miles already understands how great power demands great responsibility, but that doesn’t mean sequestering yourself away from human interaction.
Into the Spider-Verse, along with Black Panther, has a diverse and fresh soundtrack. Hip-hop mixed with an electronica vibe that doesn’t feel like it was made to copy every other musical score currently out in theaters. It has a personality and a style; two things that separate it from almost every other modern day comic book movie.
Ramsey, Rothman, and Persichetti imbue the film with a sense of urgency, humor, and gravitas. The mixture of visual styles makes for a heady concoction. I especially liked the decision to focus on the shapes of objects making them pop out of the scene. It lends a texture lacking in even the most visual live-action comic book movie; a sense of reality by exaggeration.
Movies aren’t real but rather warped mirror images. Somehow it’s in the funhouse version of reality things seem more real. The art production team led by Patrick O’Keefe succeeds with such exacting talent I still think about them days after the movie is over. Moments such as when Miles slaps a sticker on a street sign. Or when he jumps off a skyscraper, his body arched as he free falls.
There is much I haven’t even touched on about Into the Spider-Verse. Nic Cage as a black and white noir Spider-Man, John Mulvaney’s talking pig from a cartoon universe, the character design of Kingpin, and much more. In fact, if there is a complaint is that the “too muchness” of the movie is a bit too much. Oscar Isaac is listed in the credits, and yet I can’t recall his character at all.
Ramsey, Rothman, and Persichetti spin fifty plates, and they do a herculean job of keeping them all spinning. But this comes at the expense of character development of all the varying Spider-People. At one point a character loses a trusted friend, and I found myself not really caring. It’s all a little bit overwhelming which leads to at crucial moments we the audience feeling underwhelmed.
When I say I was breathless by the time the credits rolled I’m not being hyperbolic. I felt invigorated and a little out of breath. The film is a brave new step for comic book movies but what exactly the lesson other studios will take from this remains to be seen.
Into the Spider-Verse is daring, shockingly so for a studio film. For once I wasn’t checked out during the obligatory third act battle. A beautiful marriage of style and narrative I found myself deliriously overjoyed by the end. I can’t wait to see it again.
Image courtesy of Sony Pictures
‘Vox Lux’ Goes for Broke Almost to the Breaking Point
Warning: Vox Lux contains scenes depicting a school shooting that could trigger some viewers. It also has many scenes with rapidly flashing lights that may trigger those with photosenstivey disorder.
Vox Lux is a magnificently flawed film of abject fury and empathy. Not since this year’s earlier Sorry To Bother You have I witnessed a movie so consumed with passion and anger. I’m just not sure it’s any good.
It seems to be railing against our current obsession with what I guess you could call “distraction culture.” A culture aware of the horrors and atrocities going on around them but whose own futility at what can be done is usurped by its own need to feel joy. Vox Lux argues there are distractions and then there is ignoring things so you don’t have to think about them.
Yes, it’s healthy to practice self-care and not get too wrapped up in things beyond our control. But at what point is looking away to avoid being overcome by the horror of it all turn into ignoring everything else except for our own obsessive need for gratification. At least I think that’s the main thrust.
To say Vox Lux is about any one thing would be foolhardy. Gun violence, the dehumanization of celebrities, and how women are marketed less for talent and more for their bodies are all fair game. Truthfully I’m not sure exactly what it’s trying to say. It’s hard to tell. For as giddy as I was watching Vox Lux I was also frustrated because I couldn’t quite understand what the film was trying to do. It didn’t help that the ending can be perceived as either irritating or brilliant. The film walks the knife’s edge of artistic brilliance and pretentious nonsense.
Brady Corbet structures Vox Lux as a fable about a young girl named Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) who survives a school shooting. Narrated by Willem Dafoe, his voice lends an air of forthright impenetrable honesty as he regales about the girl’s life. Celeste survives with a permanent spinal injury. At the memorial for the other students, she and her older sister Ellie (Stacy Martin) play a song they wrote. The result is Lady Gaga/Beyonce inspired superstardom.
Vox Lux is one of those movies where I can tell you what happened but it doesn’t do it the justice of sitting there seeing it all unfold. Corbet makes every scene palpable, every frame pulsates with energy. The film feels alive and as such seems untamable as it explodes onto the screen before our eyes. Operatic and feverish, it never lets up no matter how much you may wish it to.
Celeste survives a school shooting, this is true. But Corbet makes us feel the horror and the tension of living through the school shooting. The ubiquitousness of gun violence both in our media and in our day to day lives has perhaps deadened the very real, violent, and disturbing reality of the actual experience. The driving anger of Vox Lux is in our inability to hold onto meaningful experiences and instead, dropping them and moving on to something else.
Natalie Portman plays a grown-up Celeste. A world-famous pop star, she is all but coming apart at the seams. In many ways, Vox Lux looks at how we enshrine celebrities and make them impossible beings. Portman’s Celeste is a pop star on the verge of a nervous breakdown. With her thick Staten Island accent and slicked back hair, Celeste powers through when she should clearly take a breath.
Celeste has a daughter of her own now, Albertine, also played by Cassidy. In an abrasive and uncomfortable scene, the adult Celeste attempts to have a heart to heart with her daughter. But Celeste is so closed off due to her stardom and drug abuse, she seems incapable of basic human connection. Her daughter asks her why she hates Ellie. Celeste responds with a rambling monologue about how nothing we do matters anymore because people just move on to the next thing. “I did a commercial a few years back. That stupid little thing where the rose opened up and I was little fairy inside with a soda can. I thought it’d ruin me. Know what happened? Nothing. Everybody forgot about it.”
It’s an old joke on the internet that the internet never forgets, but it’s only partially true. Yes, the internet is forever but our attention spans are not. Vox Lux isn’t pointing fingers so much as expressing a deep and volatile dissatisfaction with the way things seem to be heading. Art can offer answers but sometimes art can just be a cipher for our volatile and, sometimes, corrosive emotions.
At the same time during this same scene, the manager of the restaurant comes over and asks Celeste if he could take a picture with her. “I’m not going to post it. I just want it for me.” A celebrity’s time is rarely their own. Social media has made fans voracious in their need to be seen with people who “are just like them” but who never get to be treated like normal people.
Portman turns in what is her second best performance this year behind the earlier and still haunting and gorgeous Annihilation. But her work in Vox Lux is jaw-dropping for the kinetic energy she imbues in her Celeste. It is a fearless performance. Portman all but leaps from the screen and into the audience. Her Celeste is larger than life as she struts, dances, throws temper tantrums, all before turning to the screen and smiling. We root for Celeste while acknowledging what an absolute hell it must be living in her sphere.
After getting high, and having sex with Jude Law’s character known only as The Manager, the two stumble out of Celeste’s hotel room. I mention the scene only because Portman does one of the best pratfalls I’ve seen all year. I howled because Vox Lux is a movie that constantly pokes you, daring you to express either frustration or laughter. At the very least it wants you to feel something and tries in earnest to get, at the very least, a rise out of us.
The tightrope act the actors have to walk in the film is how nuanced they are. Law’s Manager character is as flawed and fleshed out as anyone in Mary Queen of Scots. He is at once kind and caring while also being manipulative and brusque. Notice the storm of conflicting emotions on Law’s face, and Portman’s for that matter, when she walks in on him holding Ellie in her arms. For all it’s bravado it’s the quiet moments between the screeching vibrato of its tone is where Vox Lux holds it’s most haunting and galvanizing power.
Much of the film’s power comes from the harsh and ingenious editing of Matthew Hannam. Just as you think we’ve got a bead on its rhythms it switches gears and out of our grasp. Aided by Lol Crowley, the cinematographer, the two create a living pulsating piece of artistry hellbent on making sure their screams into the abyss are heard. Crowley never puts the camera in a boring or wrong place. Even if the angle might be familiar the lens or lighting make it seem fresh and new. It allows us to decide for ourselves how we feel about certain moments and reactions.
I mentioned Portman’s pratfall earlier. While the theater was not packed, it was far from empty, but I was the only one laughing. I tell you this to illustrate how the film works differently for different people. A scene may be darkly comedic to me but to you or someone else, it may play as unbearably tragic.
During the last act of the film, we see Celeste perform her latest album, Vox Lux, to a teeming throng of adoring fans. Magically the concert footage feels like an actual pop concert. The vibrant and inventive energy the film has worked so hard to cultivate never evaporates. I sat in awe as they seamlessly blended realism with the dreamlike imagery of surrealism. Corbet, Crowley, and Hannam have sewn together disparate scenes that would in a lesser director’s hands seem like patchwork.
The ending, as previously stated, is abrupt; almost daringly so. A crucial piece of information is revealed just seconds before Corbet cuts to black. Because of how Vox Lux is presented, many moments seem weird or odd so after a while, we do not think much of them. But Corbet, mere seconds before the end drops a bombshell of a revelation that might be true or not. Dafoe’s narrator, whose voice exudes authority and honesty, delivers the line almost as an afterthought. I don’t know if it makes Vox Lux an inarguable masterpiece or if it pushes the film over the line from operatic to camp trash.
Most movies never know when to quit. Vox Lux quits arguably too soon. When I realized the credits were rolling, it took me a few seconds to realize it was over. Time flew by, though I’m not sure I would call the time spent watching Vox Lux fun. Engaging, certainly but calling it fun seems shallow somehow.
I like movies that are fun but sometimes I think we value the movies that are merely fun over the movies that are not. As if a movie not being fun is somehow an excuse not to engage with it. I’m not arguing that movies that are boring are good. I’m merely saying that, if we are to call movies art, then we should allow for a broader sense of what we demand from them.
Still, when the lights came on and I struggled to catch my breath, I knew some would find it too much. It is not a film for everyone, it never pretends to be. Its brashness and audacity have stayed with me and I get kind of giddy just thinking about it. Vox Lux is an act of untamed cinematic grandiosity that flails about with such brashness you might end up kind of annoyed. I loved every minute of it.
Image courtesy of Neon
Mary Queen of Scots vs. the Patriarchy
I am normally not a fan of period pieces set in the Elizabethan era. I came up in the 90’s back when Hollywood was flushed with them. Despite this genre prejudice I found myself utterly absorbed by Josie Rourke’s Mary Queen of Scots. A smart, complex, enthralling tragedy so well paced and woven the Bard himself would be pleased.
Of the many feats Mary Queen of Scots somehow pulls off, is the slaying of the insistent but moronic myth that movies like these cannot be populated by queer people or people of color. They have always existed and are a part of history; regardless of what decades of whitewashed historical epics might have said. The inclusiveness of Rourke’s film is as refreshing as it is bold.
While Mary Queen of Scots may present itself as a costume drama about how Mary (Saoirse Ronan) tried and failed to unify Scotland and England, it is only partly about that. At its heart, it is a tragedy about two women Mary and Elizabeth (Margot Robbie) and how they are the head of their church and country but each sits at the heart of the patriarchy.
I’m not sure how historically accurate the script by Beau Willimon is but, in the end, it doesn’t matter. It feels real and when it comes to storytelling, that is the best we can hope for. Exiled to Scotland, the Catholic Mary Stuart attempts to bridge a peace with the Protestant Elizabeth I. Elizabeth refuses to marry or have children thus cementing her hold on the crown. Mary, on the other hand, is quite happy to marry and is, in fact, planning on having a child thus giving her a claim to the throne.
Don’t worry, Mary Queen of Scots is much more fascinating and moving than it sounds. For starters, Robbie’s Elizabeth is a woman on her own surrounded by men all but demanding she marry and sire an heir. Robbie is, per usual, magnetic.
Elizabeth confesses to her advisor William Cecil (Guy Pearce), “I am a man. If I were to marry, my husband would surely wish to be my king. I will not bow to any king. I am the queen. You are the closest thing to a wife I shall ever have.” The moment is a perfect marriage of the perfect words for the perfect actress.
Mary Queen of Scots is shockingly adept at showing how remarkably little power women in power have when their counsels and envoys are men. Schemes and double crosses are made both for power but also so to free the country from “the yoke of female rule”. Time and time again Mary Stuart and Elizabeth I remain always pitted against each other.
Mary wishes nothing but to be named merely the next in line for the crown. But Elizabeth’s men cannot tolerate a Catholic laying claim and Mary’s men cannot fathom bowing to a Protestant. Round and round it goes with treachery and betrayal littering the road. Willimon’s script has an aura of fate inscribed into its structure. Even as Mary is charmed by Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden) we know he will be her downfall. Not because she is weak but because it will allow, by technicality, for there to be a way to kick her off the throne.
Ronan’s Mary loves her country even though it seems not to return her love. Ronan does not have the fierceness that Robbie has and in fact, her Mary seems innocent and naive comparatively. But Ronan is sly in her performance. Much like Elizabeth, we underestimate her but we soon grow to root for her.
Lord Darnley’s inevitable betrayal is uncovered and Mary is counseled to execute him. “I will not behave as some woman Henry the VIII beheading my husbands just to secure my throne. I took a vow to honor and love him.” Though he may not live with her, or rule with her, she will not break a vow taken before God.
Mary and Elizabeth both show courage and principle in a world filled with men who have neither. At one point Elizabeth, suffering from the pox, ailing, but still full of fire and grace, wonders, why she shouldn’t just name Mary as successor. Her advisors point out her failings to which Elizabeth laughs. In one of the best scenes Elizabeth lays out all that has been done to Mary and yet she still stands.
Mary for her part is dealing with a recently quashed civil war, a renegade Cleric John Knox (David Tennant) and a gay husband who is being blackmailed by her most trusted advisors to take the crown and give it to her brother James (James McArdle). Unlike Elizabeth, she refuses to give up her femininity or her right to love and passion. Rourke never says which queen is right or wrong, only that each queen is ruling in the way she feels is best.
Willimon’s script lays out each character so fully that we understand where each character is coming from even after only just meeting them. We understand Tennant’s Knox when he argues with Mary about accepting the Catholics. Willimon’s deep and abiding empathy flows through the very text of Mary Queen of Scots and adds to the verisimilitude of the story.
Gemma Chan, who was so wonderful in this year’s earlier Crazy Rich Asians is magnificent as Elizabeth Hardwick. A role with barely any words, she plays a friend and confidante of Elizabeth’s. Chan’s glances tell us more than dialogue can as she becomes increasingly worried about her queen.
Rourke and Willimon surround both Queens with an inner circle of ladies, each an extension of how the queen is perceived. Elizabeth’s are comforting but often quiet and reserved. Mary’s are much more outgoing and effusive in their praise. Mary show’s an inclusive streak herself when she allows a bard who seems to enjoy wearing dresses into her fold. She treats him as she treats her other ladies, and they accept him as so.
Scotland is a countryside we’ve often seen in movies. John Mathieson, who shot Logan, shoots Mary Queen of Scots with a lush and deft eye for rolling hills and misty beaches. For all the beauty he and Rourke never let us forget the grimy reality of the times. Yes, there are castles, but they are made of stone, the chairs do not look comfortable and when it rains, there is little hope of getting dry.
Mary Queen of Scots is breathtaking in its intimacy and drawn out tension. It is Rourke’s directorial debut in film and it is an announcement of confidence and joy of a craft. She has created a world that feels lived in and whose drama and characters feel immediate and real.
Full of political intrigue, but never dull or pompous, this is a generous movie filled with many tiny moments and gestures on the sides of the frame. It takes a great talent to portray a tragic tale of love, sisterhood, betrayal, and envy in such a way we feel exuberant rather than exhausted. Rourke is such a talent.