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Film review: Mary Queen of Scots, and The Image Book

18 January 2019

Stephen Brown sees Mary Queen of Scots and The Image Book

© 2108 focus features. all rights reserved

Margot Robbie as Elizabeth I in Mary Queen of Scots

Margot Robbie as Elizabeth I in Mary Queen of Scots

HOT on the heels of The Favourite (Arts, 11 January) comes another superbly acted cinematic tour de force about powerful women striving to avoid playing into the hands of men. Mary Queen of Scots (Cert. 15) is the latest version of this piece of 16th-century politics.

As with some of its predecessors — the 1971 Vanessa Redgrave-Glenda Jackson film, or Donizetti’s opera, for example — a pinch of salt is required when assessing the historicity. In real life, Queen Elizabeth and her cousin never met, but you dearly wish they had, as they do in this film: perhaps the outcome would have been different. Also, the Protestant Reformer John Knox, played by an ebullient David Tennant, looms larger in Mary’s life than is implied by the couple of references that she made to him in her letters at the time.

© 2108 focus features. all rights reservedSaorirse Ronan as Mary, Queen of Scots, in the new film

In 1561, the young widowed Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan) returns from France to ascend her throne. Scotland in her absence has been ruled by regents, notably her half-brother Moray (James McArdle). Mary’s intentions don’t go down very well with him or several other men. Her Roman Catholic faith threatens the country’s stability. Knox declares this “harlot queen” “a scourge upon our land”.

At first, Elizabeth (Margot Robbie) entertains delight that women reign over two sister countries. They encourage one another not to fall for “a treaty drafted by men lesser than ourselves”. The problems arise for the two monarchs when Mary, already manipulated by her male advisers, feels impelled to assert a claim to the English throne. England, seeing itself free of the shackles of Christendom, has no wish to revert to a Catholic-led government. Thus ensues a battle of wills, then of soldiers.

While England was opposed to Mary, her more immediate enemies come from within the caucus of Scottish nobles — so much so that, in 1568, she flees to England hoping for clemency. As we know, this was not forthcoming, and she faced trial, imprisonment, and eventual execution. The drama, of course, lies in Elizabeth’s hand-wringing dilemma about what to do about Mary, faced with the latter’s impassioned appeal to one whom she regards as her sister.

Throughout this protracted anguish, the men on the whole come out rather badly. This is historically true, but we should also remember that the film is released in the wake of the #MeToo Movement. At one point, Mary tells her ladies-in-waiting: “Be wary of these men. Their love is not the same as their respect.” She should know.

And, if it is clearly a film released in the aftermath of the Harvey Weinstein allegations, a touch of Brexit has also been inflected into the narrative. Taking back control is equated by both queens’ scheming advisers as maintaining a clean break with Rome. In effect, Tennant’s Knox becomes an amalgam of Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage. But by drawing too many fanciful parallels with contemporary Britain, Josie Rourke’s transition from stage to screen director fails to plumb the depths, despite a repertory company at the top of their game.


THE abiding image in The Image Book (Cert. 15) is of John the Baptist’s finger pointing upwards, a detail from Leonardo da Vinci’s picture. This coffee-table-book-like film comes from French New Wave pioneer Jean-Luc Godard (born 1930).

Mubi/© casaazulfilms - ecran noirThe pointing finger from The Image Book

His best-known dictum — that the cinema is truth 24 frames per second — holds good for him despite digital frame rates’ not being the same number. The director’s introductory voiceover declares that man’s true condition is to think with hands. This is a deliberate use of puns: fingers belong to hands, which are used to manipulate digital images. A cornucopia of brief clips from films (approximately 80 different ones) are subsequently drained of their colours, over-exposed, robbed of soundtrack or subtitles, and placed within a series of frequently distressing montages. Godard refers to them as “remakes”, all in pursuit of cinema’s inimitable ways of seeking after truth.

The Baptist in the painting, under the threat of execution, smiles benignly at viewers, urging us to look towards heaven. Meanwhile, here on earth, The Image Book treats us to a hellish scenario of “moral fault . . . merged with state crimes”. These are momentarily interspersed with glimpses of how life ought to be; hence the Marx Brothers clowning around in Duck Soup, as well as exultant dancers both in Max Ophul’s Le Plaisir and Audrey Hepburn in War and Peace. Such are Godard’s exceptions to life, which he depicts as nasty, brutish, and short.

There’s a distrust that what people say with their lips isn’t necessarily what they believe in their hearts — especially leaders. Their subjects are in danger of losing their heads, like John. This is a well-worn theme of Godard, who made several cinematic attacks on America’s war with Vietnam, as well as various other political institutions.

Though influenced by Marxism and Existentialism, this old man has never ceased from exploring. In 1985, he made Hail Mary (1985), about a young woman facing an inexplicable pregnancy with faith and courage. So, too, now. Single-handedly, armed with a library of movies, he confronts those evils that and hurt the soul. Godard prefaces his catalogue of crimes against humanity by stating “The world’s masters should be wary of Bécassine. She is silent.”

mubiA still from The Image Book

The reference is to France’s prototype comic-strip heroine. An unprepossessing Breton housemaid, Bécassine is Godard’s model of sanity and moral progress, not in that respect a million miles from being a Christ-figure amid principalities, powers, rulers of darkness, and spiritual wickedness in high places. To put reality into reality, the director says, he needs eternity for the story of one day.

During prematurely inserted closing credits, he continues to assert a spirit of “ardent hope”. In the course of the film, we are shown the “All is grace” sequence from Diary of a Country Priest and a plea that we could carry out salvation by killing our desire to keep up appearances. The Image Book is a cineaste’s dreamscape mingling current nightmare with reveries of a future eternity. Godard, like the Baptist, believes he can, assisted by the finger of God help drive out demons, pointing us towards the Kingdom of God.

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