Mary Queen of Scots is a handsome but mostly forgettable mid-centuries soap opera starring two of our finest working actresses. Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie are incredible performers but there isn’t anything in Mary Queen of Scots that rises to the level of their talents. The film is not bad because Ronan and Robbie are too good for it to be bad but the story is far too thin and boils down far too simply given the amount of juice this story appears to have on the surface.
Mary Stuart is a fascinating historical figure. At a very young age, though she was heir to throne of Scotland, she was forced to flee to France. While there, she married the French King but did not become Queen by marriage, she was 5 at the time she was promised to the 4 year old future King. When the King died young, Mary fled back to Scotland where she was welcomed back as Queen by her brother, the Earl of Moray.
Mary’s return was not welcomed by her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie). Ever suspicious, the Queen of England kept a distance from Mary that was as strategic as it was out of fear. The Elizabeth of Mary Queen of Scots appears concerned that Mary’s beauty eclipses her own and that any invitation for comparison between the two could lead to a confrontation over her legitimacy as Queen.
The flames between Mary and Queen Elizabeth were further heated by the growing tension between the Protestants and Catholics. Mary, being a proud Catholic and Elizabeth, a Protestant, each had factions to serve and keep at bay from religious leaders and members of their respective courts. The two maintained correspondence with Elizabeth acknowledging Mary’s desire to ascend to the throne if Elizabeth died but the succession discussion was as political as it was about whom God ordained as royalty.
Eventually, the two would come into more direct conflict when Mary rejected Elizabeth’s suggestion that she marry the Protestant Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester, ineffectually portrayed by Joe Alwyn. Mary took things a step further by marrying Catholic and English subject, Lord Darnley, her cousin. That Mary proceeded with the marriage to a family member and English subject without the Queen’s permission was a significant slight.
Eventually, it would be the Protestant and Catholic factions that would be Mary’s undoing but not before we get a baby and a pair of murders and a rape and finally a beheading. There is a whole lot of drama packed into Mary Queen of Scots but it doesn’t land because though Mary and Elizabeth are deeply compelling, the men surrounding them wither in comparison. Schemers, toadies, and sycophants, the men of Mary Queen of Scots do little to deepen the drama of Mary Queen of Scots.
The script repeats the same beats in Mary’s life over and over again. She rises to power, she is challenged by a man and defeats him. She rises again, is challenged by a man and out maneuvers him until finally, her luck runs out. The timeline is confusing as well as we jump ahead months and sometimes years at a time with only a few minor visual cues to indicate such a change.
As I mentioned, the production of Mary Queen of Scots is handsome. The costumes look authentic and lavish, the hair and makeup are gorgeous even as they push the bounds of believability for the period, and the sets have a lived in and worn down quality that suits the period. I have no issues with the presentation of Mary Queen of Scots, I just wish the story had been as involving as the set dressing.
As it is, Mary Queen of Scots is something of a pot boiler but a trifle of one. The film pretends toward seedy exposes and serious costume drama and never settles on which tone it prefers. A love scene between Mary and Lord Darnley prior to their marriage is intended as a moment of sexy excess but comes across as needless and awkward in executions. Rarely is the sex in Mary Queen of Scots anything necessary or titillating, it’s either uncomfortable, criminal or merely problematic.
So if the film isn’t sexy and it isn’t serious enough to rise to the level of the great costume dramas of the past, then just what is Mary Queen of Scots. At its very least, it is a fine showcase for Ronan and Robbie who bite down on their roles with gusto. If the script were better, the male characters more well-rounded as either foes or allies, and if the film’s shifting in time narrative were cleaner and clearer, perhaps Mary Queen of Scots would work. As it is, it’s messy and narratively unsatisfying despite the stars.