‘Mary Queen of Scots’ Features Unforgettable Performances From its Female Leads

Mary Queen of Scots poster

Many people, particularly on the movie’s IMDB page, have been bashing “Mary Queen of Scots” for failing to be historically accurate. But like many motion pictures which say or imply they are “based on a true story” or “inspired by true events,” this is another one which is not obliged to be restricted in its storytelling by mere facts. Indeed, this movie has been listed by the filmmakers as historical fiction which I am perfectly fine with as deals with two queens from centuries ago who had a respect for each other, but were also frightened by the other’s ability to wield power, and both had a lot of power at their disposal.

Based on the biography “Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart” by John Guy, this movie starts off by showing Mary’s eventual fate, something we really didn’t need to see right away. Not that it spoils anything, but it is so brief to where its brief inclusion feels unnecessary.

From there, we see Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan), Queen of France, arriving in her native land of Scotland intent on reclaiming her throne there. But in this period of strife between Scotland and England, Queen Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie) holds powerful reign over both countries and is not in a hurry to surrender her power to anyone. Mary, however, sees herself more than a ruler by name, and she asserts herself in a way which threatens Elizabeth’s sovereignty and brings about a hot cauldron of rebellion and betrayal. Both women have a defiant appearance about them, but they will eventually find it difficult to keep their heads held high as treachery undoes their legacies in a way which will never be easy to repair.

“Mary Queen of Scots” gets off to a very slow start, and I found myself almost falling asleep. It is as though director Josie Rourke, the first woman ever appointed Artistic Director of the Donmar Warehouse, worked too hard to keep things from peaking at the story’s start. But once Ronan and Robbie make their presences known to us, this movie really hits its stride as both actresses inhabit their characters in ways both fearless and stunning as each proves they are more than ready to govern a country in a way Theresa May only thinks she can.

Ronan is exhilarating to watch throughout as she makes Mary Stuart into a bold ruler who will not suffer fools in the slightest, and seeing her stare down her most loyal servants, male and female, is truly a sight to behold. It’s like her eyes are spitting out daggers to where she has to say nothing in getting her point across. Just watch her scenes with Jack Lowden who plays Mary’s second husband, Lord Damley, who woos her in a way which would have earned this movie an NC-17 just a few years ago. But just as Lord Damley thinks he is the one in power, Mary emasculates him to where he is of little use other than impregnating her and giving an heir to the throne. Ronan stares Lowden down with what seems like little effort, and you have to give Lowden credit for playing a man who is so out of his depth in the monarchy.

Robbie came out of nowhere like a firebolt with her breakthrough performance in “The Wolf of Wall Street,” and she continues to wow us with one great performance after another in movies like “I, Tonya.” In this movie, she has an especially big challenge as Queen Elizabeth I is a historical character who has been played by many actresses over the years in various movies. We could spend our time comparing her performance to those given by Cate Blanchet and Dame Judi Dench among others, but n the end she more than makes this role her own. Even as she shows the power Elizabeth has all those around her, the actress is unafraid to show us this queen’s vulnerabilities which do not end with an almost deadly bout with smallpox. Seeing all those pox marks on her face succeeded in bringing back a lot of bad memories for me, and I have to give the makeup artists high praise as a result.

In real life, Mary and Elizabeth never met face to face, but the thought of them in a room together is highly intriguing. What would they talk about? Can’t they relate to one another in a way they cannot with others? The ideas abound, and what results here is a riveting scene between Ronan and Robbie as their characters strive to assert a power they see as being given to them without question. These two actresses do some of their best work yet here, and seeing them face off and hold their own results in one of the strongest pieces of acting I have seen in a 2018 movie.

Both Mary and Elizabeth respected and were frightened by one another. It’s tragic they could not become better friends as they were one and the same; female leaders who ruled in a time when the thought of a woman commanding such a power was something were too easily frightened by. The level of testosterone surrounding them did not stop them in their tracks, but it is clear how one queen fared better than the other.

“Mary Queen of Scots” thrives on the performances of Ronan and Robbie. The story is at times a bit hard to follow as the politics of the time are not always made clear, but things do improve as the movie goes on. Rourke does a strong job of bringing you right back to the year 1569, and there’s an excellent film score composed by Max Richter which heightens the visceral emotions on display. It’s also great to see actors like Guy Pearce and David Tennant sink so deep into their roles to where they almost completely unrecognizable. Of course, a lot of that is due to an abundance of hair they have on their bodies. What results is not quite a masterpiece, but a powerful motion picture which showcases the amazing talents of its two female leads even as takes liberties with history.

It’s sad to see things have not changed over time. Even now, female politicians still get done in by innuendos (a.k.a. fake news) about their records and accomplishments. But coming out of this movie, I’m fairly certain neither Mary or Elizabeth would have made the mistake of using a private email server in the same way Ivanka Trump did. Again, a lot of that is due to Ronan’s and Robbie’s powerful work.

* * * out of * * * *

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‘The Theory of Everything’ Gives Us the Stephen Hawking We Never Got to Know Until Now

The Theory of Everything movie poster

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written back in 2014. I am posting it here out of respect for Stephen Hawking who just passed away in March 2018 at the age of 76. Once diagnosed with ALS, he was expected to live only a few years more, but he succeeded in living on despite what the disease did to his body, and he lived one hell of a life. RIP Stephen.

It is shocking to see Stephen Hawking, as played by Eddie Redmayne, riding around recklessly on his bicycle at the beginning of “The Theory of Everything.” We have long since gotten used to seeing him in his motorized wheelchair as ALS robbed him years ago of the ability to move around on his own, and we all know the sound of his computerized voice which has provided us with an insight to his brilliant mind and allowed him to provide lyrics to Pink Floyd songs. But this movie reminds us he was not always like this, and that there was someone in particular who saved his life in more ways than one.

“The Theory of Everything” is based on the memoir “Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen” which was written by his first wife, Jane Wilde Hawking, and it focuses on their courtship which took place during their time as students at Cambridge University. Stephen looks like a perfectly dressed nerd who has the appearance of someone destined never to have any luck with women, and yet he still manages to catch the eye of the beautiful Jane (may we all be this lucky). At first it looks like an ill-suited coupling as Stephen is a student of physics while Jane’s main studies are in romantic languages. She believes in God, but Stephen’s love of science appears to imply he does not. We watch as they come to love and understand how the other thinks, and the way it is presented to us is both lovely and very believable.

But of course, we all know what will happen to Stephen eventually, and it is shown here in excruciating detail as he suddenly trips and falls down right on his head (ouch). Upon discovering he has ALS and told he has only a couple of years to live, Stephen finds himself shying away from everyone around him including fellow students, professors and even Jane as he desperately doesn’t want to be a pity case for anyone. But Jane has fallen deeply in love with Stephen, and she is not about to give up on him because there is too much to lose.

It’s hard not to think of movies like “A Beautiful Mind” while watching “The Theory of Everything” as both feature strong female characters determined to save their afflicted husbands from the diseases which appear all but fatal. For a time, it looks like this film will be no different in the way it portrays the strained relationship Stephen and Jane as they sacrifice so much to make things work between them. But as the movie goes on, it defies conventions and shows us a relationship which does suffer, but any impediments thrown into their path do nothing to tear apart the infinite respect they have for one another.

The eyes of the world are on Eddie Redmayne right now who as his performance here is utterly astonishing. I would love to ask about how he went about portraying Stephen’s bodily deterioration because he achieves doing so in a way which feels painfully real, and it’s amazing what he’s able to convey when Stephen is no longer able to communicate vocally (at least, until he gets that computerized voice). We always talk about how certain performances are more about imitation when it comes to playing characters based on real people, but Redmayne inhabits Stephen to such an amazing effect to where I found it impossible to label his performance as being one of mere imitation. Even as ALS continues to ravage his body, Redmayne makes the case for why Stephen remains such a respected individual to this very day as well as one who continues to fight the odds.

And let’s not forget the fantastic performance by Felicity Jones who portrays Jane Hawking as the lovely and strong-willed woman she is. While it may look like she has the easier role to play, Jones has an equally challenging role as she shows the unending struggles and sacrifices Jane went through to keep Stephen alive. It’s painful to watch Jane as she uses an alphabet sign to communicate with Stephen after his tracheotomy, and Jones makes you feel her pain as she wonders if she has suddenly taken too much away from him.

“The Theory of Everything” was directed by James Marsh who previously made “Man on Wire,” the Oscar-winning documentary about Philippe Petit’s tightrope walk between the two World Trade Center buildings in New York. Marsh does excellent work in keeping all his actors in check to where they never go for scene-hogging moments of an embarrassingly dramatic nature. Truthfully, it is the ordinary moments of these characters lives which are the most fascinating to watch, and Marsh succeeds in taking us back in time to a most romantic period in these couple’s lives.

The other great thing is how Marsh and screenwriter Anthony McCarten, who spent ten years trying to get this movie made, refused to let the audience look at Stephen Hawking as if he’s a complete invalid. Despite the damage ALS has done to his body, Stephen still managed to live a full life which has included two wives and three children, and it didn’t stop him from doing his work which eventually led to the publication of his novel “A Brief History of Time.” Heck, he even got to guest star opposite Data on “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” What more could someone ask for?

“The Theory of Everything,” is by no means a movie which falls victim to conventions or clichés. It presents us with a marvelous story about two people who come to love one another for their thoughts and minds, and of how their love helped them through various struggles which would have worn anyone else out in less than a year. It also contains some of the best performances of 2014 from Redmayne and Jones who are as brave as they are daring. Portraying real-life people onscreen is always a challenge, but they both took roles based on very well-known individuals and succeeded in making them their own.

Seriously, “The Theory of Everything” is one of the best movies of 2014 that I have seen and it is deserving of many of the accolades it has received.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’ Has Gary Oldman Giving One of His Best Performances

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy movie poster

It’s interesting how the spy world in John le Carré’s novels differs sharply from the one in Ian Fleming’s. Whereas James Bond was a dashing playboy of a spy and the good and bad guys were easy to tell apart, the spies in Carré’s world exist in a morally gray area, and their lives prove to be anything but glamorous. No one is innocent, and everyone has something to hide from others or perhaps even themselves. Here, there are no gunfights or explosions but instead conflicts both internal and external. Even the people we look up to in Carré’s novels are deeply flawed, and you can quickly see why no one can truly trust one another.

No book in Carré’s vast library of work exemplifies this more than “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” which features his most famous fictional character, George Smiley. Originally turned into a brilliant BBC miniseries back in 1979 with Sir Alec Guinness as Smiley, it has now been made into a motion picture with Gary Oldman in the lead role. Whereas the miniseries had more time to develop the story and characters, this movie does an excellent job of doing the same in a shorter span of time. Granted, much has been left out from the novel, but those unfamiliar with the miniseries are unlikely to notice.

The movie hovers around the goings on in The Circus, the codename for British Intelligence. After one operation goes wrong and an agent is killed, the head of Intelligence, Control (John Hurt), is forced to resign along with his right-hand man, Smiley. Smiley, however, is brought back into service when it becomes apparent there is a mole in British Intelligence. Moreover, it’s a mole which has been in The Circus for a long time, and he is a senior member with access to all sorts of secret information. Smiley, in his own way, seeks out the mole before the British become completely compromised in world affairs, and what results is a game of chess more than a battle of wits.

Casting Oldman as George Smiley at first seems like a surprising choice. Oldman made his film debut as Sid Vicious in “Sid & Nancy,” and his performance as the doomed punk rocker reminds us of how over the top he can be as an actor, and I always looked forward to seeing him play the villain in movies like “The Professional” and “Air Force One.” We revel in his emotionally unhinged performances which have made him stand out prominently among other actors of his ilk, and he has rarely, if ever, let us down.

As Smiley, however, Oldman is forced to dial back on the manic energy he became famous for. George Smiley is a character who never loses his cool and conveys so much even through the simplest of gestures. With even an ever so slight movement, we can see Smiley’s thought process at work and are never in doubt of how powerful a character he is. Each movement Oldman takes as Smiley is one which has been deliberately thought out, and even he knows he doesn’t have to bounce off the wall as this famous spy because this one goes into the room knowing all he needs to know.

In recent years, Oldman has gotten to stretch a bit with roles like Sirius Black in the “Harry Potter” movie franchise. While Black is first seen as a bad guy, it turns out he is a good one who cares deeply about Harry’s well-being. Then there is his role as James Gordon in Christopher Nolan’s “Batman” movies where he makes the good guy seem very cool without being such a square. What makes George Smiley an especially interesting character is he is neither a good or bad guy, but instead someone who is forced to navigate the dirty waters which he cannot help but get submerged in from time to time.

This is one of those roles which drive most actors crazy because it can become ever so easy to become utterly self-conscious about every single scene they are in. Being an actor myself, I often wonder if I am doing enough or perhaps too much in one performance to the next. While acting on the stage makes this easier to answer, acting in a movie or television is not only different but far more intimate. In the latter, you have to be more natural to where the camera never catches you emoting, and this can be difficult to say the least. But it’s those subtleties which can provide amazing results with the right director watching over you.

“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” also has a cast of brilliant British actors like John Hurt, Colin Firth, and Toby Jones, all of whom do their best in playing characters who have long since accepted the fact that they are morally compromised. You also have Tom Hardy, who succeeded in doing so much with just his eyes as Bane in “The Dark Knight Rises,” as a British agent who is only beginning to become morally compromised. None of these intelligence officers are easy to decipher on the surface, and a lot of this is thanks to their excellent performances.

Directing this adaptation is Tomas Alfredson who directed the great film “Let the Right One In.” Alfredson handles the intricacies of a story which could easily have become convoluted in terrific fashion, and he keeps us enthralled throughout. Even if we can’t follow the story, he succeeds in keeping us on the edge of our seat all the way to the end. Furthermore, he generates an intense and exciting climax without the use of gunplay or explosions, and there is something to be said about that.

Describing all which goes on in “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” is not easy, but it is not an impossible story to follow. Watching this movie for a second time will help give you a chance to examine the subplots more closely. While the spy world of Carré may seem nowhere as exciting as the one Fleming created for 007, it deals with the real world more directly as the line between right and wrong is forever blurred. What’s fascinating is how these people survive in it even as they continue losing pieces of themselves in a world and time which is prepared to beat them down on a regular basis. Everyone involved deserves a lot of credit for making what might seem ordinary and unglamorous seem so relentlessly thrilling.

* * * * out of * * * *

 

About Time

About Time movie poster

Those who know me best know I typically cannot tolerate romance movies. Sure, there are exceptions like “When Harry Met Sally” and “(500) Days of Summer,” but I usually find most of them to be unforgivably manipulative, inherently cheesy and full of cringe inducing dialogue. As a genre, I typically avoid it whenever possible, so my enthusiasm for “About Time” was not at an all-time high. But then I noticed a familiar name on the movie’s poster, Richard Curtis. This is the same man who wrote the screenplay for “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” one of the few romance movies which actually had me on the edge of my seat, and he also wrote and directed “Love Actually” which has become my dad’s favorite film to watch on Christmas Eve. As a result, my excitement for this movie suddenly went up to an unexpected height.

“About Time,” on the surface looks, like the kind of romantic comedy where a man and woman get together, fall in love and then break up only to become a couple again by the movie’s end. But the fact is its trailer doesn’t do the movie any justice. The story ends up becoming more than the usual romance, and it ended up go in directions I didn’t expect it to. Curtis is obviously aware of the trappings inherent in this genre, and he succeeds in avoiding them and gives yet another film which is genuinely moving and full of characters who are relatable and refreshingly down to earth.

The main character of this romantic tale is Tim Lake (Domhnall Gleeson), a 21-year-old desperate to have a girlfriend in this lifetime. His attempts at getting a kiss on New Year’s Eve don’t work out as planned, and it only adds to his self-deprecating attitude which he has clearly spent years perfecting. He can’t even capture the heart of his sister’s best friend Charlotte (Margot Robbie) who is quite the looker.

Before he heads off to London to become a lawyer, Tim’s dad (played by Bill Nighy) lets his son in on a little secret: the men in his family have the power to time travel. All Tim has to do is go inside a closet, clench his fists tightly and think about a place he wants to go to, and suddenly he’s there. He immediately tests this time travel power out and goes back to New Year’s Eve to get the kiss he missed out on, and from there he uses it to benefit himself and those closest to him whenever possible.

Now on the surface this seems like a silly plot for a movie, and the Bill Murray comedy “Groundhog Day” quickly came to mind as I watched “About Time,” but Curtis has not given us the typical time travel movie here. In fact, the time travel aspect gets pushed more and more into the background as Curtis aims to focus on not one but two love stories.

Tim ends up meeting an American woman at a blind dating restaurant where everyone is served food in the dark, and through their conversations they form a connection which becomes unbreakable. Once he gets outside and back into the light, he discovers the person he spoke with is the beautiful but insecure Mary (Rachel McAdams), and their moment on that quiet London street had me rooting for them to make this relationship work.

The other love story in “About Time” is between Tim and his dad, and I found it to be the most moving part of this movie. At first it looks like they have the usual father-son relationship where the father gives his son life advice and the son takes it with a grain of salt, but their relationship feels a lot more real than those I have seen in recent movies. Once Tim learns his dad is headed for a certain fate he can’t escape from, their relationship becomes even deeper and you dread the moment these two people will have their last ever conversation.

Are there some logistic problems with the time travel aspect of this movie? Probably, but I didn’t care. It serves as an interesting plot device as Tim accidentally erases his initial encounter with Mary after helping a friend, and he ends up having to make her fall in love with him all over again. It’s also amusing to watch Tim try to improve on certain moments in his life with Mary like when they have sex or when he proposes marriage. Heck, we’d all love to have the power to undo the more embarrassing moments in our lives, and I got a huge kick out of Tim undoing his.

But the time travel device does serves to illuminate one of the movie’s main themes which is to not be overly concerned with the past or the future, but to instead stay in the present and take pleasure in every moment. This is what I love about Curtis’ movies, how he takes the most mundane, ordinary things and turns them into a thing of beauty. They are the things in life we take for granted and don’t always take the time to appreciate. By the movie’s end, Curtis makes us realize this, and we come out of “About Time” with an upbeat look on life we don’t always have.

The other thing I’ve come to love about Curtis is how populates his films with multi-dimensional characters we can relate to. The thing that drives me nuts about a lot of movies, especially ones from the romantic genre, is how they give us characters that are doing so much better than the rest of us, and it gets to where we just believe that all these problems with love only happen to successful white people. Curtis, however, continues to give us the most memorable characters we could ever hope to meet in our lifetime.

It also helps that Curtis has quite the cast to work with. Domhnall Gleeson, whom you might remember as Bill Weasley in “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” is terrific in the way he radiates that Hugh Grant awkwardness as his character goes from being unlucky in love to being very lucky in life. As for Rachel McAdams, I’m trying to remember the last time I found her to be so radiant in a movie. McAdams does some of her best work here as Mary, and every time she smiles it just fills your heart with joy. There’s also some nice performances from Lydia Wilson as Tim’s wayward sister Kit Kat (yup, that’s her name), Lindsay Duncan as Tim’s mom, and the late Richard Griffiths has a wonderfully memorable moment as an actor who doesn’t need help memorizing his lines and will bluntly let you know this.

But the best performance in “About Time” comes from Bill Nighy who portrays Tim’s dad (we never learn his character’s real name). It’s the simplicity of his performance which really gets to you as he never overplays or underplays the character. He never tries to go for that “Oscar moment” which the Academy easily goes crazy over for all the wrong reasons. Nighy doesn’t give us an extraordinary man or a boring father. Instead, he just gives us a man and a dad who is no different from the one we’ve grown up with, and he makes it so, when we watch him, we can’t help but think of our own dad.

Seriously, “About Time” moved me to tears. The only other movie this year I’ve cried after was Terrence Malick’s “To the Wonder,” but that’s mainly because he just had to use Henryk Gorecki’s “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs” which remains the saddest piece of music I have ever heard. With this film, Curtis reminds you of how the simple pleasures in life can often be the greatest, and of how you need pain in order to better appreciate happiness. There are a lot of movies out there which try and make you see this, but few filmmakers these days can make us appreciate this as much as Curtis does.

It’s a bummer to hear Curtis say “About Time” will be his last film as a director. He’s not leaving the movie business, but he is going to spend more time on the charities he works for. Still, it’s hard to think of any director, other than Mike Newell, who can better convey Curtis’ views on life as well as Curtis. Here’s hoping he changes his mind at some point in the future.

* * * * out of * * * *