Monarchs and Pretenders

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Mary, Queen of Scots
Produced and distributed by Focus Features
Directed by Josie Rourke
Screenplay by Beau Willimon

The Favourite
Screenplay by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara
Distributed by Universal Pictures

Stan & Ollie
Produced and distributed by Sony Pictures Classics
Directed by Jon Baird
Screenplay by Jeff Pope

Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Produced by Archer Gray
Directed by Marielle Heller
Screenplay by Nicole Holofcener adapted from Lee Israel’s memoir
Distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures

The story of Mary Queen of Scots makes you wonder why anyone would aspire to be a monarch.  Mary was an accomplished woman.  She had mastered five languages, English being the third; was schooled in the classics; had traveled extensively in Europe and had been married to the French dauphin, Francis II, for a time before his death.  She is reported to have been a lively and witty conversationalist with a canny grasp of politics, and, by some accounts, was a capable battlefield strategist.  Yet she seems to have been too naive to rule successfully.  She fell prey to the scheming of the noblemen in her court who never ceased from plotting her deposition.

In telling her story, director Josie Rourke and screenwriter Beau Willimon have decided to turn her and her cousin Elizabeth I into feminist heroines surrounded by scurrilous men intent on using the women to their own advantage.  I suppose, stretching a point or two, a case may be made for this interpretation, but I’m somewhat disturbed by the attempt to transform the women into early avatars of our contemporary attitudes.  This muffles the 16th-century assumptions regarding the meaning and importance of royalty which were paramount in the political thinking of the age.  Then there’s the decision to have African actors play English roles, most notably Thomas Randolph, who was by all accounts guilty of being nothing more or less than Caucasian.  And Chinese actress Gemma Chan plays Mary’s attendant in her captivity.  Of course, there were Africans and Asians in England in the 16th century, but they were notably not among the upper class.  Maybe it’s racist of me, but I found this distracting.  Of course, blacks and Asians have played classical roles on stage in our time, but this is not nearly as jarring.  The open artifice of stagecraft makes racially eccentric casting quite acceptable.  However, film’s heightened realism, principally by virtue of close-ups, foregrounds the eccentricity, making it seem quite odd.  Or so it seems to me.  Or is this nitpicking on my part?

Still, the film is beautiful to behold, and the actresses playing the queens, Saoirse Ronan as Mary and Margot Robbie as Elizabeth, are quite winning.  But the production lacks much drama.  For one thing, it’s intolerably slow.  Even the ahistorical meeting of Mary and Elizabeth somehow falls flat.  Perhaps in an attempt to acknowledge that the encounter is entirely fanciful, Rourke has the actresses talk to each other through gauzy drapery wafting in the breeze.  It really doesn’t work.

In his 1921 novel Chrome Yellow, Aldous Huxley has a cynical character remark that the only way to know what a person is capable of is to give him the Caesar test.  You do this by granting unlimited power and wealth and then observing what happens.  With no one in a position to restrain the person, the true self will soon emerge, often to ghastly effect.  After all, very few of us are saints.  Here, Mary and Elizabeth seem at first tolerant rulers ready to make reasonable concessions to each other.  The issue of religious practice—Elizabeth, Protestant; Mary, Catholic—seems not to have bothered them much.  But when Mary averred she had the superior claim to England’s throne on grounds that Elizabeth came into the world by virtue of what Catholics considered the invalid marriage of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth clapped her in prison for 18 years and then, at the instance of her counsellors, had her beheaded.  I suppose we can be thankful we’re spared the spectacle as recorded by some sources.  After Mary’s decapitation, her head was supposed to have rolled across the executioner’s scaffold while she continued her prayers for at least 15 minutes.  While I’m sure there would be an audience for this horror, I’m afraid I’m not among them.

In The Favourite we meet another English queen.  She’s Anne, who reigned from 1702 to 1714, and she’s played wonderfully by Olivia Coleman.  When the mood strikes her, this queen takes her ladies-in-waiting to bed with her for some oral sex.  Amusing?  Perhaps, but almost certainly false.  Anne was sickly for most of her life and tortured by arthritis and skin afflictions.  Then there were the 17 pregnancies she had with her beloved husband, Prince George of Denmark, all of which ended in miscarriages or infant deaths.  Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos makes lugubrious fun of this sorrowful history.  Among other things he has Anne take in 17 rabbits, seemingly to replace her children.  She dotes on the animals, letting them run freely about her palace.  Entertaining, no?  No.  There were no rabbits.  They’re the invention of Lanthimos and his scriptwriters.  And there are other inventions and very little history in the film.  Lanthimos shows court dances featuring the kind of Terpsichore one finds in West Side Story with young men falling to their knees and sliding across the palace’s polished floors.  How entertaining.

Lanthimos has explained that while some of the film’s events are historically accurate, others are entirely imagined.  I guess we should applaud his honesty, but I find it sneeringly high-handed which, come to think of it, is Lanthimos’s hallmark.  Such an approach to his work might be forgivable were it at all entertaining, but it’s unvaryingly leaden instead.

Emma Stone, playing a lady-in-waiting, enters into a marriage of convenience with a young man.  We watch her sitting up in bed reading a letter she holds in one hand while with the other she is giving her husband a perfunctory hand job.  As I recall, Bette Davis and Errol Flynn never engaged in such activity.  Had MGM been less prudish in 1939, such a scene might have been included in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex.  This is the Lanthimos touch.  In The Killing of a Sacred Deer, he had Nicole Kidman lie across a bed and invite Colin Farrell to make free of her loins by seductively intoning in the flattest tone imaginable, “Anesthetic?”  Frightfully funny this was.

There’s something relentlessly macabre about Lanthimos.  Macabre and humorless.  He seems to want to drain his dramas of any vestige of normal passion, the better to laugh at his characters.  Despite this he’s been hailed in some quarters as though he were the second coming of Orson Welles.  Well, there’s no accounting for taste.

A film can be dour and chilly and still be entertaining.  Certainly, Stan & Ollie accomplishes this feat.  The narrative recounts the final years in the lives of Laurel and Hardy.  There’s a good deal of humor—how could there not be?  But it is subdued.  It’s the 1950’s, and the comedians had lived past their sell date.  They’re not getting film offers.  Audiences are no longer enthralled by their drollery.  So they’ve gone to England to try their routines on the stage.  The trouble is few young people know who they are, and the older population have the telly on which they can watch reruns of the films the duo made in the 1920’s and 30’s.  So Stan and Ollie find themselves playing to sparsely attended audiences comprising mostly seniors.  These older folk remember the films that had made them laugh decades ago, and they’re very appreciative of the performances even though the duo’s routines don’t have the impact they did on the screen.

Most of the public, however, have moved on.  Abbott and Costello and Martin and Lewis are all the rage, comedians whose comic invention is loud, coarse, and lacking anything like the sublime subtlety of Laurel and Hardy’s work.  Depressing.  For them and for us.  Although I found myself resisting it, I nevertheless couldn’t help feeling sorry for them.  I suppose that’s the effect for which the film strives.  Still, it’s not all sadness.  And there’s quite a lot of laughter to be had when the aging clowns get going.

At a reception after one of their performances, an elderly couple tells them how much they enjoyed The Music Box, a short film directed by James Parrott in 1932 in which the boys are seen pushing a large piano up an impossibly steep and lengthy staircase only to lose their purchase on it over and over.  Each time they do, the music box rolls down the stone stairs as they stand hopelessly aside and watch its Sisyphean career to the street below.  If you haven’t seen it, you can watch it on YouTube.  It epitomizes what made the duo’s comedy so effective.  Laurel’s helplessness accompanied by Hardy’s exasperation distill the essence of ineptitude in the face of the daily challenges of ordinary life.  This is the secret of their success.  People could easily identify with their common tribulations.

John Reilly in a fat suit makes a surprisingly effective Hardy.  He’s in a state of constant high dudgeon.  And Steve Coogan is perfectly convincing as the perpetually flustered Laurel, vigorously scratching his head in response to the intractable difficulties that beset them.  For reasons I can’t fathom, director Jon Baird has chosen to emphasize pathos over comedy.  Too bad.  Still, we’re reminded of the team’s joyousness, especially when Blair splices in scenes from their actual work in the 1930’s.  This makes the film an uncommon treat.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? should have been a treat also, but it falls well short of its aim in telling the story of Lee Israel (well-played by Melissa McCarthy), a failing writer who after some success writing about celebrities for years finds neither her regular publisher nor any other wants her material any longer.  As she hoofs it from one publisher to the next, she notices in a bookstore that the owner is selling books with the help of autographs.  Bing!  She has an idea.  She’s adept at copying other people’s handwriting, so why not forge autographs herself and sell them to book merchants?  In no time at all, she’s marketing her fake signatures accompanied by invented notes from the authors.

We don’t find out until the film’s very end how she managed to convince the store owners that her “found” autographs were genuine, so I won’t reveal it here.  Suffice it to say, when the revelation comes, it’s not so surprising.  All in all this is a mildly entertaining story that Israel eventually turned into a memoir.  It’s also an investigation into how profit can foster gullibility.

Why are people so desirous of authenticity?  After all, does a signature confer added value to a letter, book, or painting?  Does F. Scott Fitzgerald’s signature bestow additional substance on his frankly fraudulent Gatsby?       

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