Mary Queen of Scots, a regal and often impeccably designed film, suggests by its title that it is concerned with Mary Stuart, the ill-fated Scottish queen who wished to unite a British isle under one crown. Hers. Yet like so many other films that tangentially touch Elizabeth I and her ever golden-hued reign, it quickly becomes apparent this is a movie yearning to be about the Virgin Queen. Perhaps it should’ve been since the final product, presented here as a tale of two monarchs, often suffers from divided loyalties between the dueling thrones.
Structured around the difficulties and cruelties inflicted on women, even those who rule nations, and the contrasts in how they attend those obstacles, Mary Queen of Scots imagines itself to be something akin to the Heat of period melodrama, with two powerhouse performances battling for dominance. But rather than being the centerpiece of the film, the (fictionalized) tête-à-tête between Saorise Ronan and Margot Robbie is merely a denouement, a gripping showcase for Oscar nominees that nonetheless plays like a fizzle instead of a climax. To be clear, Ronan and Robbie are superb, each giving meaty soliloquies that are only compounded when they’re finally firing words at each other, like awards reel-ready spears, but they’re constricted in a formulaic picture that is otherwise every bit as suffocating as the corsets and makeup encasing the performers.
Beginning in the year 1561, Mary Queen of Scots stuffs more than 20 years into its brisk, if top-heavy, two hours. Using a rather theatrical invention to explain why neither actor is required to don aging prosthetics (although Robbie seems to relish the requisite smallpox scars), the movie tracks the pair after Mary Stuart (Ronan) returns from a decade away at French court, already a widow as well as a woman confident in her ambitions. The soon-to-be Scottish ruler knows Edinburgh’s seat of power is hers by rights, no matter how much stalling her brother James (Andrew Rothney) employs. Mary also has further designs on making herself heir to cousin Elizabeth (Robbie), the English queen who supports her father’s Protestant Reformation and has made it clear she has no interest in taking a husband. Invariably, he’d one day want a crown too.
Elizabeth of course has other men of status whispering in her ear to not allow this Scottish, Catholic, and younger monarch to speak so boldly of succession, and indeed Elizabeth is at odds in her own company about whether to command Mary’s submission by force or finesse, or if she should embrace the only other woman alive who knows about the loneliness at the top. Of course she may not have to since Mary attempts to have it all in a reign that’s coded with maximum modernity as a career, and she takes on another cousin as her husband, Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden). Darnley proves to be a weather vane though, pointing in whatever direction the winds hail from his new wife or domineering father. Those conflicting interests lead to bloodshed, death, and a husband who thinks himself king, which is the greatest injustice of all.
Directed by Josie Rourke and written by Beau Willimon (House of Cards), the picture pulls from a Mary Stuart biography by John Guy but seems even more inspired by the pair of Cate Blanchett Elizabeth movies. Punctuated by exquisite costumes, sweeping shots of rolling Scottish Highlands, and some rather underwhelming battle sequences, the movie provides standard issue framing for its genre, albeit now as a striking duet. But for all its vibrato, the piece lacks any harmony.
By shifting between Mary and Elizabeth while sometimes making contorting narrative leaps to keep Elizabeth essential in Mary’s evermore desperate struggle to maintain autonomy over Scottish lords, Mary Queen of Scots disservices its eponymous subject matter and leaves the raw intensity that Ronan wears like so many green sleeves to be fired in a vacuum. The malignance of a patriarchy that still clings to its authority, even over the queen, is presented with a rightful air of menace, especially as a powerful priest (David Tennant) uses his pulpit to paint his queen as a harlot and heretic. But for all Tennant’s wide-eyed exaggerations, or sequences of white men conspiring around a shadowy table, the film’s rush through dates and plots makes its own overarching plotting a broadly sketched blur.
The most famed betrayal endured by Mary in which her alleged lover David Rizzio (Ismael Cruz Cordova)—simply a treasured BFF here—is gutted before her eyes plays as barely more than a montage. It is also treated as yet another concession to the picture’s many attempts to bend its portrait of Mary, a fascinating monarch during the Age of Discovery, toward the blandly comforting palette of 21st century virtue. Rizzio might have been gay, and his murder was certainly an act of political propaganda, but turning Mary into a martyr of LGBTQ “ally” Wokeness, one who sympathizes with Rizzio’s persecution to the point of forgiving him for sleeping with her husband, underscores the fact that Mary Queen of Scots wants to be admired during its screentime more than it wants to rule it.
In this way, the picture makes for a poor companion next to the awards season’s other grand period piece, The Favourite. That Yorgos Lanthimos effort also plays a little fast and loose with historical speculation on the private lives of queens and the courtiers in their bed chambers, and it also is the rarity of a political film that puts women at the center of the intrigue. But whereas the machinations of Lanthimos’ movie are actually intriguing, utilizing our modern understanding of closeted life to cast portraits that can be stunning but deliciously unflattering in their debauched shadings, Mary Queen of Scots is too afraid to take Mary off its pedestal, if for no other reason than her Elizabethan Era, both with a capital “E,” might also be forced to come down.
Indeed, the film ultimately is at its strongest, as with all Elizabethan-set films, when the English queen arrives. Unlike some of the wilting sanctimony of Mary’s scenes, Robbie is allowed a few fabulous moments by Willimon’s script. “I am not a woman, but a man,” Robbie announces with as much a laugh as a sigh to an advisor. “And you are my wife.” It is moments like these, reveling in Elizabeth’s melancholic choices that tease the movie that might’ve been. And others, where after reading that Mary had a son she mimes in silhouette the visage of a pregnancy she’ll never know, that we realize the heavy-handed soap we’re in.
Mary Queen of Scots is a film that will always gild the lily, which proves fatal since it’s seemingly set in a garden of them. When Robbie and Ronan are finally blasting fireworks, they are definitely bringing the heat in every sense of the word. But it’s for a movie that is in too fawning an awe to ever rise up off its knee and meet them as equals.