A Tale of Two Historical Epics: Mary Queen of Scots vs. The Favourite

In limited release are two films that shine an unflattering light on the British royalty. While “Mary Queen of Scots” is a handsomely mounted and performed historical drama, “The Favourite,” that was recently awarded best picture by the Atlanta Film Critics Circle, will be the one to garner many end of the year top awards.

The traditional approach: Mary Queen of Scots – Fix 6/10

As historical dramatic epics go, you could do a whole lot worse than “Mary Queen of Scots.” Director Josie Rourke follows a familiar time-tested format reminiscent of televisual Masterpiece Theater fare. Performances are solid and the production is lush, if also not particularly spectacular.

Saoirse Ronan rides in exile battling for her throne in “Mary Queen of Scots.” © 2018 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

This ample telling of the ill-fated Scot features fine work by Margot Robbie, playing Queen Elizabeth I, and Saoirse Ronan, as the title character Mary. The story centers around the power struggle for the crown—Elizabeth vs. the upstart challenger Mary, who may have the rightful claim based on her lineage. Certain to be criticized for the liberties that it takes factually, the story is told from each woman’s perspective. Naturally, given the name of the film, the lion’s share of the action belongs to Ronan (“Lady Bird”), but it’s Robbie’s work that may get award’s notice.

History told from a fresh perspective: The Favourite – Fix Rating 10/10

An acting masterclass, “The Favourite” essentially has three leads in Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, and Emma Stone. Any one of the these talented actresses could be recognized for their fine work. But Colman, as Queen Anne, is credited as the lead, making her the logical choice for the best actress nomination. Further attesting to “The Favourite’s” undeniable merit, Stone, who will likely find herself with another Oscar nomination, may be competing in the supporting actress category with co-star and fellow Oscar winner Weisz.

Rachel Weisz and Joe Alwyn in the film THE FAVOURITE. Photo by Atsushi Nishijima. © 2018 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

This dark comedy takes place in 18th century England during the rule of the sickly Queen Anne (Colman). With the assistance of her close friend Lady Sarah (Weisz), Queen Anne manages the affairs of state from a palace in the countryside. Things begin to unravel when Sarah’s penniless cousin Abigail (Stone) visits looking for work. In time, the conflict between the two women for the affections of the troubled Queen reaches a fevered pitch, with potentially dangerous results. Although there are biting and comical moments, the discord and its ultimate resolution is no laughing matter.

Visuals that tell a story: Risks and Rewards

While the attention will be paid to the three actresses performing at this top of their abilities, director Yargos Lanthimos (“The Lobster”), working with gifted cinematographer Robbie Ryan (see “Slow West,” “Wuthering Heights,” “American Honey” and many others), crafts a sumptuous picture. “The Favourite” looks even more impressive when compared to “Mary Queen of Scots.”

Already sporting a traditional take on storytelling, “Scots” is, also, more conventional visually. Oscar nominated cinematographer John Mathieson (he gave us the fantastic looking “Gladiator”) takes very few risks, as we get pretty shots of the Scottish and British countryside. These massive, wide angle images are repeated over and over, and interiors are fine, if mostly locked down. By comparison, “The Favourite” approaches the subject with the particular style indicative of its interesting director.

Director Yorgos Lanthimos and Olivia Colman on the set of “The Favourite.” Photo by Atsushi Nishijima. © 2018 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

The talent responsible for 2009’s fascinating “Dogtooth,” Lanthimos is an exciting auteur. “The Lobster” was one of the best films of 2015, and his “Killing of Sacred Deer” was consistently interesting, showing great potential early only to never quite come together in the concluding act. “The Favourite” is the culmination of his promise, a fully realized and accomplished film worthy of best picture honors.

It’s Lanthimos’ unconventional approach in the narrative that spills over to the cinematography. The images have great depth, with detail in the darkness that suggests that something is there lurking about. What’s interesting is how brightly lit hallways, partially awash with light from large windows, are very quickly swallowed up by darker areas as the camera follows the characters. In “Scots,” interiors are often minimalistic, not just in design, which may be period appropriate, but in depth and texture. Mathieson’s work is professional and expected, but lacks the spark that Lanthimos and Ryan bring to the material.

Something staged, something cinematic: pick your poison.

“Mary Queen of Scots” is the debut feature from theater director Josie Rourke. While the movie is perfectly fine, it is somewhat lifeless when compared to “The Favourite.” Rourke’s background in theater is clear, as much of the film feels like it would be at home on the stage. Lanthimos’ direction is infused with cinematic energy that takes advantage of the camera, making the material feel fresh and new. It’s this freshness that is sorely missing from Rourke’s more conventional historical epic.

Still, I really enjoyed “Scots,” and felt a bit uneasy while experiencing “The Favourite.” This points up the inherent differences in the filmmaking approach. Rourke delivers a stately, handsome, if, somewhat flat, take on past events, whereas Lanthimos takes the most risks. It is important to note that both films insert sexual identity material, but again, it is “The Favourite” that doesn’t feel like such subplot is forced into the narrative.

Margot Robbie gives her all playing Queen Elizabeth I in “Mary Queen of Scots.”

For some viewers, Rourke’s Masterpiece Theater method will be exactly right, but it’s Lanthimos who will receive all the attention, capturing the imagination of the cool kids and awards voters. The real loser is Margot Robbie, who gives her finest performance to date, only to find herself outdone by the edgier work of an inspired, A-list threesome.

The winner here is Lanthimos, who presented question marks after the relative failure of his “The Killing of a Sacred Deer.” Here he’s able to maintain the intensity and carry his film to a meaningful conclusion that will have viewers immersed in discussion thereafter.

“Mary Queen of Scots” and “The Favourite” are in theaters now.