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Why We Need Vikander’s Lara Croft

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And a sequel. Preferably more than one, but I’ll start with one.

There are a couple things I want to be clear about up front: I’m not here to argue about the merits of rebooting a film franchise based on a reboot of a video game. Nor am I particularly concerned with whether or not it the plot had holes (it does), or if the writing can be thin at points (it is), or how convenient/contrived certain aspects are (they are). Those are valid points. Though to my mind, I rather expect each of these to be true of films in this genre (see, the Indiana Jones, National Treasure, or Da Vinci Code film franchises).

What I’m interested in is Lara Croft as a character, specifically the version of the character portrayed in this most recent film by Alicia Vikander. I will admit, I haven’t played the new video game, so it may be they have a ‘better’ version of the character. That’s neither here nor there, though, because this isn’t about the game. This is about Vikander’s version and why we need to see more of her, and more female characters like her, on our film screens.

Her Strength and Intelligence

Vikander’s Lara might not be weight-lifter class, but she’s still physically strong. Most importantly, she’s strong in a way that’s appropriate for her body type. She reminds me physically of a cross between the rock climbers and distance runners I know, which is how the film showcases her strength. She’s fit without being superpowered for her size, and to my mind, her fighting style also fits naturally with her shape and size. Relying on her legs, exploiting her smaller size and maneuverability, taking advantage of distractions, not being afraid to ‘play dirty,’ utilizing grappling and choke holds—all this and more make her a believably strong woman for her size and skillset.

Look at her go!

Plus, most of her physicality relies as much, if not more, on her intelligence, endurance, and fearlessness as it does on muscle tone or raw force. Dexterity and perseverance are just as important if you’re trying to weave through the jungle or freehand climb. And, she’s mentally strong enough to stare death in the face multiple times without blinking. Like a BAMF.

Like all archaeology-action movies, puzzles are a big part how Lara showcases her intelligence. While there are moments where I would have enjoyed a bit more explanation (the tomb combination for example), I’m not the kind of viewer who needs to follow along with every instance of puzzle solving. I get as much pleasure out of watching someone be clever without all the details of how it works. But we still get plenty of instances where we see Lara putting all the pieces together, even ones her father didn’t get.

She deciphers the color puzzle. She perceives the significance of the tomb murals and what they mean for Himiko (which is a big moment I’ll come back to). Her father tells her that she’s worth ten of him, and to my mind, she proves that. Was bringing the journal along with her the best choice in hindsight? Probably not. Then again, if she hadn’t, she never would have found her dad. She had no reason to believe that the ‘wrong hands’ were on the island with him. Making the most reasonable choice based on the information she had available to her doesn’t make her stupid. But that’s getting into plot contrivance, which as I said, isn’t really my concern. Besides, as anyone with ADHD will tell you (myself included) intelligence and common sense don’t always go hand in hand.

In terms of having a skilled action hero with believable physical abilities that are appropriate for her body type and size, mental endurance and perseverance, and critical thinking and problem-solving skills, Vikander’s Lara Croft delivers. The combination of physical and intellectual traits makes her a force to be reckoned with. She’s talented and we both want her to succeed and believe she will.

It’s the kind of film where I was unsurprised to find out that the screenplay was co-written by a woman (Geneva Robertson-Dworet, who went on to write the Captain Marvel screenplay). It shows.

Her Weakness and Vulnerability

Make no mistake, Lara’s physical and mental prowess does not mean she’s unbeatable. The very first scene of the film depicts her being beaten in an MMA-style fight. She gets stabbed in the gut and almost taken out by one of Matthias Vogel’s goons. She and Vogel have a pretty nasty knock-down, drag-out fight, and he does not take it easy on her.

Female action heroes have a tendency to either get taken out really easily, or never get hit in a way that would seriously wound them. They’re rarely ever allowed to get beaten up, which might sound like a good thing until you compare that to how much male action heroes are depicted as overcoming. Is it unrealistic at times? Yeah, but that’s how action movies work. The good guys get the shit kicked out of them, but they get up and keep going.

She gets knocked down, but she gets up again. No one’s ever gonna keep her down.

This kind of toughness and resilience is rarely ever afforded to female action stars who aren’t somehow ‘beefed up’ or superpowered. While it may not be intentional, one could reasonably walk away with the message that women are only capable of enduring that kind of physical stress if they have supernatural abilities. Lara doesn’t.

At the same time, the film doesn’t have to make allowances for her either. There’s no sense of ‘letting’ her win because she’s the protagonist or that she has to be ~objectively~ stronger in order to beat the men who attack her. She can take a punch, but she’ll throw one right back. And if a punch doesn’t work, a kick to the chest might.

Nor does the film require her to be emotionally stoic or withdrawn, the way many action heroes (both male and female) are. She’s clearly wounded by her father’s disappearance without it becoming too much of a toxic chip on her shoulder. It’s a driving motivation without becoming an excuse to for her to lash out or shut down her emotions entirely.

This version of Lara is emotionally textured in a way I didn’t expect to find. She can stare down death at one moment, and weep over finding her father again the next without them being contradictory. She feels deeply without it being a weakness. It helps that Vikander’s face acting is so engrossing. (If you want emotional face journeys, this is a film for you.)

I also appreciate how accurately the film portrayed her reaction the first time she kills someone, and that she was given the space to have that reaction. Again, she’s given room to be vulnerable, but in a way that makes her relatable and emotionally layered. If her strength makes her admirable and worth cheering for, her vulnerability makes her human.

Her Resilience and Adaptability

Vikander’s Lara doesn’t survive because she’s untouchable. She has grit. One could argue that two of her best skills are her resilience and adaptability. She just never gives up no matter what. She gets kicked down, but she gets back up. She uses her enemies’ moves against them and learns from her mistakes. She sees and exploits weaknesses and is willing to change her plans based on changing circumstances and her fighting style based on her opponent.

It isn’t just physical either. As with all of her traits, her emotional resilience matches her physical perseverance. She definitely wasn’t in the greatest place emotionally when the film started, but she wasn’t in full self-destructive mode either. By the time the film ends, we’ve seen her go through an emotional roller coaster, yet we know she’s stronger for it.

Let me tell you, as a woman who has been through some pretty heavy shit in my life, seeing a female character display the kind of physical and mental toughness Lara has without losing her emotionality inspires me. I (hopefully) will never have to physically fight with dudes who want to unleash a horrific biological weapon on the world. But her refusal to give up, to literally rather go down fighting than drown in her pain or let corrupt people do horrific things, speaks to my emotional suffering on a metaphorical level.

She displays the kind of endurance I aspire to. And it’s great to see a female action hero embody that because this is a genre I grew up on but rarely got to see myself represented in. I want little girls to see her and think, “I can be that tough, too, and still be vulnerable without either one undermining the other.”

The Lack of Male Gaze

When it comes to her body shape, Vikander’s Lara looks nothing like the original game character or like Angelina Jolie, who played Lara in the 2009 film. Alicia Vikander herself has said that her breasts “are not as pointy as the first Lara”—a fact that I have seen bemoaned by many (mostly men) on the internet and social media.

But that isn’t the only thing that makes her, and this film, different from her predecessor. This Tomb Raider evinces a distinct lack of the male gaze throughout. Lara’s clothes are appropriate and fit her without being overly revealing. (Sorry, guys, no silver catsuit to show off every curve.) She’s actually dressed like someone who plans on strenuous physical activity (bearing in mind her boat capsizes and she loses all her clothing except what she’s wearing). Her non-adventuring clothing is likewise functional but not eroticized. I dig the soft butch aesthetic they gave her.

A+ styling choices.

The camera never lingers and her fight choreography is far from sexy or sexualized. The film pulled off the impressive feat of opening with an MMA-style fight between two female characters without the fight looking like it belonged in an adult film. No booty shorts and no gratuitous shots of her girls or booty while she’s sparring? No catsuits with visible ass crack and an inexplicably plunging neckline? No lingering shots of her wet shirt clinging to her body? No moaning that sounds suspiciously like an orgasm or ‘girly’ yelps that sound as much from pleasure as from pain?

Can I believe my eyes, or is this a female action hero being treated as more than eye candy?

For a franchise that most would associate with the objectification of its female protagonist, there is a refreshing avoidance of it with Vikander’s Croft. The one moment where she’s called ‘pretty’ comes from the creepy villain, and she (and the audience) justifiably recoil from it. Because it’s creepy and gross for him to comment on her like that (especially in context). If that isn’t a rejection of her objectification nothing is.

Yes, Alicia Vikander is physically attractive. But the film doesn’t make her story or her role as the protagonist about that. Nor does it make it about her being or having a romantic interest. There’s space to ship her and Lu together, for sure, but it’s never explicit. In fact, the film does everything it can to make this a character driven story and her character does not revolve around her attractiveness. She’s not presented for objectification by the male gaze the way other iterations of Lara Croft have been. It’s one of the things I love most about her, but I do suspect it pisses off a certain subset of viewers.

Her Privilege and the Reclamation of History

I didn’t go into the film expecting a lot of thematic resonance, and to be fair, it isn’t foregrounded. As I said, this is primarily a movie about the character of Lara Croft and her journey to find her dad. It’s a hero origin story, only instead of a superhero coming to terms with her powers, we get a woman accepting and finding her place in her father’s (true, secret) legacy.

Yet, within that story of accepting that her father had a secret life as an eccentric explorer and researcher of the supernatural is one of privilege and responsibility. Ana Miller wants Lara to ‘claim her inheritance.’ Lara refuses to do so because it would mean declaring her father dead in absentia. Yet Lara also declares that the money isn’t hers; she’d rather make her own way in the world than use her father’s money. There’s a nice metaphor there for a child of privilege not wanting things handed to them that they didn’t earn.

Am I making too much of it? Maybe. But the film explicitly draws the connection between the Croft wealth and having a societal responsibility to do the right thing more than once. Her father tells her as much, though she doesn’t understand until after she’s learned about Trinity and sees firsthand the lengths to which they would go to harm others in their attempt to, as Richard Croft puts is, “control humanity.” We don’t know precisely how this would work or what they plan on, but they were willing to hunt down and utilize a bioweapon of mass destruction so…we know they’re pretty darn evil.

As someone with wealth and connections, Lara has the resources and privilege to take Trinity on. Should Tomb Raider get a sequel, I have little doubt this would be part of it; the ending to the film makes this pretty well explicit.

And let’s not forget that moment where Lara realizes how much history had gotten wrong about Empress Himiko. It may seem like an offhand moment, but she literally recontextualizes the historical record, reclaiming the truth behind the myth. The legends about Himiko had quite literally demonized her and transformed her story of self-sacrifice into one of male rebellion and deliverance from an ‘evil, destructive’ female ruler. Lara sees the slanderous lies for what they are and calls them out. It may be small, but she gives Himiko a moment to be seen for what she was: a leader faced with a hard realization who chose to die to save her people from a disease she had no power to end.

As someone who cohosts a podcast dedicated to shining a light on the underappreciated and overlooked queer folks in history, I can appreciate just how important this kind of moment is. She’s reclaiming history for a woman who had lost the ability to speak her own story. A woman whose choices had been demonized by the (presumably male) writers who passed her story down in its distorted form. The film didn’t have to include this, but it did. And that’s significant.

Most archaeological adventure movies include a layer of colonialism and exploitation of native cultures, even by the good guys. Here, only the baddies seek to remove artifacts from their original context. While I can’t say Lara tries overly hard to preserve the original context, she’s the only one to see and embrace Himiko for what she was—a leader who sacrificed herself to save others—rather than being a symbol (Richard) or a weapon (Trinity). Thus, embedded within this adventure story of a woman finding her long-lost father is the reclamation of female history and sacrificial leadership.

Bringing this back around to Lara’s sense of responsibility, she finds out that Trinity’s front company is owned by Croft Holdings. She and her father have been benefiting from a corrupt system this whole time and she never knew. Yet as soon as she finds this out, she takes it upon herself to see just how far it goes and is quite ready to bring the whole thing down, even if it adversely affects her. She’s seen Trinity’s brutality and corruption first hand and is unwilling to let more people suffer.

When you put it like that, it’s a pretty good analogy for using privilege to bring down unjust and corrupt systems. With her position comes a responsibility to protect the world and others as much as she can and do her part to bring the system down. What I’m saying is, it works really well as a “fuck the patriarchy” metaphor. That may not be the intent, but it works pretty damn well. So well that I’m inclined to think that it was intentional but intentionally subtle.

So…What’s the Big Deal?

So Alicia Vikander’s portrayal of Lara Croft is emotionally and mentally textured. So she’s given space to be both strong and vulnerable. So she has great acting chops and a strong face-journey game that is at once powerful and understated. So the character has one moment of reclaiming a female figure from history and goes on to use her newly acquired wealth and privilege to bring down a corrupt organization she unknowingly benefited from as a child. So what? Why does that mean we need more of her and female action heroes like her?

For one, because she’s uniquely human and relatable as a female action hero. She’s neither idealized nor sexualized. She’s resilient, adaptable, and clever—character traits that men, women, and enbies of all ages can look up to. She avoids falling into toxically masculine tropes like emotional repression, lashing out, or revenge-fueled violence.

She’s the kind of adventurer you can see rescuing artifacts from those who would exploit or weaponized them and restoring them to their original contexts. Now, she may never do that, but it fits with her character to do so. Unlike an Indiana Jones or Benjamin Franklin Gates, she’s not a treasure hunter masquerading as an archaeologist. As enjoyable as such films are, I’m ready for the genre to evolve. In today’s cultural context, films that highlight the exploitation that lies behind digging into the past and other cultures would be a welcome commentary on how colonialist most of Western archaeology has been.

Granted Lara Croft might not be the best female action hero for the role, given that she’s white and Western herself. However, a character like Vikander’s Lara can create space for another female action hero, one played by a woman of color, to come along and do so.

If Lara gets to be a multi-faceted character who kicks ass and displays emotional vulnerability while taking down a big business and reclaiming some female history along the way? So much the better. I’m here for it.


Images courtesy of Warner Bros

Bi, she/her. Gretchen is a Managing Editor for the Fandomentals. An unabashed nerdy fangirl and aspiring sci/fi and fantasy author, she has opinions about things like media, representation, and ethics in storytelling.

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Play the first reboot game, really, do it. If you think movie Lara goes through alot reboot game Lara starts off going from being shipwrecked to nearly burned alive to impaled on a sharp piece of metal in the first 5-10 minutes, it gets worse from there Point being: Lara survives /everything that can possibly get thrown at her/ out of sheer determination and gets to the point of being the most feared threat on an island full of crazed cultists and everyone trying to kill her mostly out of being hellbent on saving her (sadly missing from the movie)… Read more »

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‘Vox Lux’ Goes for Broke Almost to the Breaking Point

Jeremiah

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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

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Mary Queen of Scots vs. the Patriarchy

Jeremiah

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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.


Image courtesy of Universal Pictures

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Avengers: Endgame Revealed

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avengers endgame reveal

Just ignore the silly name. We all know Endgame is a bit stupid and maybe the internet can shame Marvel into changing it. Regardless of the name, we have our first look at Marvel’s epic conclusion to the story begun in Infinity War. The Avengers are back to undo the damage Thanos wrought upon the universe.

We don’t see anything unexpected here. Half of all life is gone, our heroes are sad, Tony Stark is lost in space on the verge of death (not really), and they have a plan to undo the Snap. Steve Rogers lost his beard, and I don’t mean whatever woman he currently “dates” to distract from his feelings for Tony. Hawkeye is back and Ant-Man shows up. Really the only thing missing is Captain Marvel. Come on, Marvel, we all know she will be there. You want Captain Marvel to make even more money than it already will? Let people not in the know aware of her role in the new Avengers movie.

In this humble writer’s opinion, Infinity War did a stunningly effective job with the ensemble superhero movie and set a huge bar for this latest entry to not only clear but even match at all. Can they possibly recapture that magic again? Who will live or die? What will the new Avengers team look like in the end? How will they undo Thanos’s villainy?

All I know is that Nebula better be a feature attraction here. Her relationships with both Thanos and Gamora demand it.

Avengers: Endgame will snap half the money out of existence this April.


Video and Images Courtesy of Marvel Studios

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