The race to the Oscars heats up this week with two highly anticipated releases.
The period drama “Mary Queen of Scots” (opening in D.C. theaters today) stars two actresses who competed for the Best Actress Oscar earlier this year as two rivals for the English throne.
“Mary Poppins Returns” (opening everywhere Dec. 19) has already earned four Golden Globe nominations for Best Musical or Comedy, Best Score, Best Actress (Emily Blunt) and Best Actor (Lin-Manuel Miranda).
For anyone who needs a quick refresher for “Mary Queen of Scots,” England’s Queen Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie) has a shaky claim on the crown (after all, her father King Henry VIII had her mother Anne Boleyn beheaded). Elizabeth is worried that her cousin, Scotland’s Queen Mary (Saoirse Ronan), has her eye on the English throne, although Mary denies any such ambitions and is having enough trouble keeping her own crown on her head.
Like so many directors before her, Josie Rourke finds cinematic gold in this rich material, effectively focusing on the specific challenges of being a woman and a leader.
Visually, the movie is stunning. Working with costume designer Alexandra Bryne, cinematographer John Mathieson and a very talented design team, Rourke creates a lively visual contrast between the two queens. Elizabeth’s court is all formal pomp and pageantry; Mary’s court is full of music and dance and frolicking.
Rourke’s work with her stellar cast, especially her two leads, is flawless. Both queens are suitably regal and imperious, but they wield their power in very different ways. Robbie’s Elizabeth is all icy restraint where Ronan’s fiery passion often overrules her fierce intellect. The supporting cast is excellent, most notably David Tennant (“Doctor Who”) as Protestant cleric John Knox, Brandon Coyle (“Downton Abbey”) as Mary’s treacherous father-in-law and Guy Pearce (“Priscilla Queen of the Desert) as Elizabeth’s chief councilor William Cecil.
Where Rourke is less successful is her collaboration with screenwriter Beau Willimon (“House of Cards”) who based his script on the work of historian John Guy. Willimon and Rourke focus on issues of gender and sexuality in fascinating ways, although it is sometimes jarring to see Mary as a paragon of contemporary tolerance.
They effectively highlight Elizabeth’s role as the Virgin Queen; Elizabeth says that holding onto the crown has turned her into a man. Mary follows her passions, but her disastrous marriage to the gay Henry Darnley (Jack Lowden) leads to her downfall as the Scottish rebels yoke the toxic powers of sexism and homophobia to take her down.
Where they are less successful is the overall balance and pacing of the picture. The final act of the movie is lethargic as Willimon suddenly turns his full attention to Elizabeth and her increasing isolation.
“Mary Poppins Returns,” on the other hand, is a sweet escapist holiday confection, although it starts out in an unexpectedly dark place.
It is two decades since everyone’s favorite nanny has flown away. England is mired in “The Great Slump” (aka “The Great Depression”) and the Banks family is in serious trouble. Michael is a recent widower with three small children and the bank is ready to foreclose on the family home. Luckily Mary Poppins flies in with her talking parrot-head umbrella and fixes everything (again).
Emily Blunt (“Into the Woods” and “The Devil Wears Prada”) is quite charming as Mary Poppins, happily embracing the character’s delightful quirks and mercurial moods. She handles the musical numbers effortlessly and is especially delightful in the surprisingly saucy music hall number “A Cover is Not the Book.” Her fine performance may not erase memories of Julie Andrews, but she definitely makes the part her own.
In a somewhat awkward move, Bert (Dick Van Dyke) the chimney sweep is replaced by Jack the lamplighter (Lin-Manual Miranda). Unfortunately, the lamplighter’s “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” is just a pale imitation of the sweep’s “Step in Time” and new character never quite gels, despite Miranda’s impressive skills as a song-and-dance man.
The supporting cast (including out actor Ben Whishaw as Michael, Emily Mortimer as Jane, Julie Waters as the befuddled housekeeper and Colin Firth as a villainous banker) is strong. Meryl Streep has a lot of fun as Mary’s eccentric cousin Topsy and Angela Lansbury is simply magical as The Balloon Lady.
For LGBT fans of the legendary “Mary Poppins,” “Mary Poppins Returns” may not erase memories of the original movie, but it will inspire some wonderful new memories. Working in a very different vein, in “Mary Queen of Scots” Josie Rourke and her award-winning stars offer indelible cinematic images and bravura performances in a queer feminist revisioning of two of history’s most powerful women.