A British period drama starring two Oscar nominees as 16th Century monarchs, ‘Mary Queen of Scots’ is the sort of prestige production that sashays into a room full of film critics, daintily swigs from a bottle of Cristal Champagne, bellows “Oscar bait!” loudly and usually does well during awards season.
Directed by Josie Rourke, an accomplished theatre director making her feature debut, and scripted by Beau Willimon, one of the writers of Netflix's 'House of Cards', it’s set in the late 1500s, when England is ruled by Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie, ‘I, Tonya’, ‘Suicide Squad’). Her cousin Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan, ‘Lady Bird’, ‘On Chesil Beach’, ‘Loving Vincent’) has been living in France. But, after the death of her husband, the king of France, Mary returns to Scotland at the age of 18 to reclaim the Scottish throne.
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She takes the throne from her half-brother, the Earl of Moray. John Knox (David Tennant), a Protestant cleric on Mary's council, is incensed about a Catholic being in charge of the country and the Protestant Elizabeth is shitting bricks that Mary might claim the English throne, too. As an opening caption announces: “Her very existence threatens Elizabeth’s power.”
Based on British historian John Guy’s book 'Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart', it sounds like the set-up for an epic throwdown between two lady bosses, right? Swords and crazy costumes? Maybe with little bit of the courtly intrigue and backstabbing of Shekhar Kapur’s ‘Elizabeth’ and ‘Elizabeth: The Golden Age’ (still the best films about Elizabeth I) thrown in?
The two queens meet just once, at a summit that was invented for the film, in a remote house where they drift through a room dressed to resemble a maze of gauzy sheets, Elizabeth particularly reluctant to face her cousin.
Otherwise, the conflict between the two characters consists of a lot of private shit-talking and sending various envoys back and forth across the border. First Elizabeth demands that Mary marry an English lord, Robert Dudley (Joe Alwyn), who is in love with Elizabeth. Then Mary is all like "what-ever" and agrees to marry a charming English lord, Henry Darnley (Jack Lowden), who is seeking religious freedom in Scotland. And then Elizabeth says that, nah sis, she didn’t mean [i]that[/i] English lord, she meant a totally different English lord. And so it drones, on and on, with brief interludes in which the queens discuss their spicy sex lives with their suitors and servants. Guy Pearce pops in to say g'day, too.
The screenplay suggests that sisterly cooperation is being sabotaged by male aggression, but this feminist theme and palace intrigue comes across as particularly old-fashioned, despite its contemporary levels of sex and violence, in a post-‘The Favourite’ world.
True to its title, the movie favours Mary in terms of screen time, and Ronan is certainly charismatic and expressive enough to hold the screen (she speaks half of her dialogue in French and the other half in English, with a perfect Scottish accent). Her presence on screen is illuminating; you can’t help but root for her ruthlessness and anger at the injustice of her downfall.
Robbie has a lot less to do, besides catch smallpox and have a bunch of gunk stuck on her face, along with one hell of a fake nose. The screenplay suggests that sisterly cooperation is being sabotaged by male aggression, but this feminist theme and palace intrigue comes across as particularly old-fashioned, despite its contemporary levels of sex and violence, in a post-‘The Favourite’ world.
Playing fast fast and loose with historical facts (the film barely acknowledges Mary’s years of house arrest, or her involvement with the Babington Plot to assassinate Elizabeth I) to emphasise drama but fumbling even that, ‘Mary Queen of Scots’ is a waste of its two talented leads. Seek out The CW’s ‘Reign’ instead – it’s roughly similar but on a tenth the budget and with more pseudo-late medieval string quartet arrangements of pop songs.