Mary Queen of Scots: Locarno Review

A serious-minded biopic that never quite gets into the head of the protagonist.

Swiss director Thomas Imbach tackles the story of Mary Stuart in a small-scale and serious biopic, headlined by Camille Rutherford and Mehdi Dehbi.

The story of Mary Stuart gets another cinematic workout in Mary Queen of Scots from Swiss director Thomas Imbach, who adapts Austrian author Stefan Zweig’s biography Mary Queen of Scotland and the Isles into an intimate and serious-minded biopic that never quite gets into the head of the protagonist.

Delicately featured French actress Camille Rutherford (Low Life) stars as the titular Queen but her delivery, in French and English, is often stilted and she struggles to illuminate the complexity of her character in the way Zweig, partly inspired by the writings of his fellow Viennese contemporary, Sigmund Freud, did. The young actress is not aided by a middling screenplay, by Imbach and Andrea Staka (who also produced) and co-writer Eduard Habsburg, which favors historical chronology over psychological insight -- though the writers do have the good sense to end the film before Mary’s famous head’s chopped off.

The film, which had its world premiere on home turf at the Locarno Film Festival, will be released in November in Germany and Switzerland and will also be shown in Toronto as a Special Presentation. It should especially appeal to History Channel-type broadcasters.

Mary’s short marriage to the young French dauphin, and then king, Francois II (Sylvain Levitte, appropriately sickly), in 1558, is done away with in a quick sequence that forms something of a prolog to the Frenchified Queen’s return to Scotland, where she settles after her husband’s untimely demise.

In one of the film’s nicest touches, the Catholic Queen of Scotland constantly writes letters to her cousin and rival, the Protestant Elizabeth I of England, in which she confesses her fears and hopes. The letters can be heard in voice-over and the figure of Elizabeth becomes an almost spectral presence that haunts Mary, as the English queen’s ambassadors bring along a new painted portrait of their ruler with every reply they convey (they never met in real life). Mary’s favorite courtier, the puppeteer Rizzio (Mehdi Dehbi, giving the film’s standout performance), also uses dolls of the two rival queens for his improvised plays, literally turning the complicated political games into child’s play (and bringing those who've forgotten their high school history lessons quickly up to speed).

But Imbach seems too much in thrall of the historical record, with all its scheming noblemen, religious fanatics and husbands (Welsh actor Aneurin Barnard especially impresses as her obsessed and wild-eyed second hubby, Lord Darnley), to be able to concentrate on what all these events and people mean for his protagonist, how they inform her personality or feed into her emotions and actions.

When Mary finally discovers the joys of intercourse with the man who would become her third spouse, the Earl of Bothwell (Sean Biggerstaff, too puny to be credible as a queen’s sex god), she suddenly becomes a lioness willing to defy anyone that comes near her and a woman who’s more than ready to defend her right to marry him (and, supposedly, have more of that magnificent sex, for once a narrative necessity the film rather oddly shies away from). But this kind of passion or clearly readable psychology that translates into action is absent for most of the rest of the film, including, quite crucially, on the battlefield in the last reel (otherwise modestly but effectively staged).

Overall, the assembly of the film is rather plain, with only the occasionally dissonant score from Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina a standout. 

Venue: Locarno Film Festival (Competition)
Production companies: Okofilm Productions, SRF, SRG SSR, ARTE, Bachim Film, Takafilm, Sciapode
Cast: Camille Rutherford, Mehdi Dehbi, Sean Biggerstaff, Aneurin Barnard, Edward Hogg, Tony Curran, Bruno Todeschini, Roxane Duran, Joana Preiss
Director: Thomas Imbach
Screenwriters: Thomas Imbach, Andrea Staka, Eduard Habsburg, screenplay based on the book
Mary Queen of Scotland and the Isles by Stefan Zweig
Producers: Thomas Imbach, Andrea Staka
Executive producers: Emilie Blezat, Sibylle Sarah Imbach
Director of photography: Rainer Klausmann
Production designer: Gerald Damovsky
Music: Sofia Gubaidulina
Costume designer: Rudolf Jost
Editor: Tom La Belle
Sales: Okofilm
No rating, 120 minutes.