On paper, Mary Queen of Scots reads like a prestige picture par excellence. Saoirse Ronan leads, theatre stalwart Josie Rourke directs and the creator of Netflix hit House of Cards, Beau Willimon, writes. The reality is a much drier, less engaging and only sporadically compelling affair. Were hair and makeup alone enough to make a triumph, Rourke’s film would be nothing less. On the other hand, in such a world, Redken would be beating Disney at the box office.
Framed by the looming axe history tells us Mary Stuart’s neck must meet, Rourke’s film spans the lengthy twenty-five years between the young monarch’s return to Scotland – from a childhood on the continent – and her very last breath. At practically every step, she looks divine. Also, she’s a bit of a saint, not to mention a martyr, surprising liberal and woman. That last trait is the most narratively relevant here; indeed, throughout the entirety of the film’s opening third, discussion concerns little else. Willimon’s script references John Guy’s book ‘Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart’ but never quite gets the hang of its intricacies.
Mary is not Rourke’s only dominant Queen, of course. Margot Robbie co-stars in a series of ineffectual cameos as a much weaker and whimpering Elizabeth I than any seen on big screens before. Even Liz Lochead’s scabrously patriotic play gave the Virgin Queen a backbone. Increasingly plastered beneath clowning makeup, Robbie can’t help but feel an odd miss-cast in Rourke’s otherwise strong ensemble. Certainly, her portrayal does little to improve scenes south of Hadrian’s Wall. Divided by rule but united by sex, Mary and Elizabeth share a fickle bond in the film and repeatedly fail to decide whether they are friends or foes. Thankfully, just enough female empowerment pervades to subside the script’s potent takeaway that women are bloody difficult.
Undoubtedly, it is the writing that hampers Mary Queen of Scots. Anachronisms are trifling affairs and so we might forgive the lapses in logic and accuracy that give French-raised Mary a modern day Scottish accent and see her converse with Elizabeth in a meeting that never actually happened. Such is dramatic license. Less forgivable is the way the script painstakingly unfurls its version of history, without managing to ensure it consistently engages. Far too few scenes in the film last longer than a whole minute, rendering Rourke’s task to simply plough through underdeveloped twists and successive treachery. The problem is less that the action is hard to follow, more that it lacks excitement. A tremendous central set piece – inspired as much by Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar as history – offers much needed juice but its a rare flourish in an overly political affair. Elizabeth’s envoys – Adrian Lester and Brendon Coyle among them – enjoy more screen time than Robbie, while an excess of scheming all too often consumes character development.
If Robbie is wasted, however, at least nothing of the like could be said of Ronan, who shines as bright here as in any of her critically acclaimed roles to date. Gliding effortlessly between girlish effervescence and regal might, Ronan excels in capturing the complexities of life at the top and the desperation of a woman physically outsized by the leagues of carnivorous male courtiers surrounding her. Said indelible preponderance of bearded sexists largely fail to register but there is at least a rousing turn by David Tennant as rampant protestant pastor John Knox: ‘We have a scourge upon our land. It is a woman with a crown’.
Against these masculine oafs – and, indeed, the tides of history – Mary does not stand a chance but there is great satisfaction in witnessing her fight. If, on reflection, it is clear that Mary is largely the root cause of her own downfall – not least thanks to the selection of unwise allies – in the moment, she is nothing short of heroic. Sadly, Rourke’s film hasn’t the bombast to carry off so simplistic a perspective.