Mary Queen of Scots: A Mediocre Historical Drama
Mary Queen of Scots marks the directorial debut of Josie Rourke, who brings the right sense of female empowerment to the project but fails to give it any oomph. Riddled with historical inaccuracies and bloated with too many unnecessary plot points, the film barely gets by on the performances of its leads.
The film explores the turbulent life of the charismatic Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan). Queen of France at 16 and widowed at 18, Mary defies pressure to remarry. Instead, she returns to her native Scotland to reclaim her rightful throne. But Scotland and England fall under the rule of the compelling Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie). Each young Queen beholds her "sister" in fear and fascination. Rivals in power and in love, and female regents in a masculine world, the two must decide how to play the game of marriage versus independence. Betrayal, rebellion, and conspiracies within each court imperil both thrones - and change the course of history.
You know that you're in for a sloppy ride with Mary Queen of Scots pretty much from the onset. Following the obligatory title card exposition customary for many historical dramas that sets up a starting point upon Mary's return to Scotland from France after her first husband, Francis II's, death, the film decides to begin briefly at the journey's end, Mary's execution. This glimpse at the execution doesn't feel motivated and fails to build any true intrique, since most of us are aware of the story's headrolling conclusion. It does, however, foreshadow the film’s many fictional liberties, since the actual Mary Queen of Scots was held prisoner for 18 years and executed at the age of 44; whereas, the film presents a youthful Mary primed for martyrdom.
Another thing that becomes apparent almost immediately is that the film is a little too stuffed with characters and unnecessary subplots, most of which fall to the wayside and don’t properly resolve. It’s hard to get a handle on all the characters at play, and you don’t really feel any sort of connection to them until late in the runtime. Filled with a lot of characters talking politics and jockeying for the throne, it feels like a less clever hybrid of Game of Thrones and House of Cards with less blood, scandal, sex and dragons. It fails to fully engage at every turn; at its best, it’s mildly amusing, and at its worse, it’s a self-important bore.
Outside of its breathtaking exteriors of the Scottish countryside, it lacks any visual charm. Even its costumes and interiors pale in comparison to other period dramas, especially the all too superior The Favourite (which you should see instead). Mary Queen of Scots manages to be unremarkable in pretty much every aspect, despite having two great talents at the forefront. Rourke and screenwriter Beau Willimon smooth out this tantalizing story with too much #MeTooisms that it falls victim to the same notion of martydom as its central heroine, and it leaves you largely unmoved. On the contrary, its incorporation of people of color is much appreciated, but the script doesn’t give them much to do.
The film really skates by on the performances of its two leads, both of which flex their ability and commanding presence; however, there’s no aspect to either performance that can hold a candle to their work in last year’s Lady Bird and I, Tonya. Robbie, who is not given enough screentime, manages to find some complicated humanity in her unhinged Queen, and Ronan is fierce as always. It should come as no surprise that the best part of the whole film is the one scene where both actresses appear together (something that never actually happened). It’s the one moment where the emotionality of the performances hit home and the direction and blocking become visually engaging; however, its quite literally too little too late, as it comes at the last 15 minutes of the production. It’s too long of a journey for such little pay off, and it seems to rush toward its conclusion after much meandering.
The film disappoints more than anything and keeps the viewer at arms length, preventing them from getting wrapped up in what should be interesting characters and a timelessly engaging story. Instead, it plateaus at mediocrity and has absolutely no chance for any awards come Oscar season. Even in a year with fewer high-caliber films, this would be instantly forgettable.
Recommendation: Fans of skewed history, and the work of Ronan and Robbie, check it out with very low expectations.
Rating: 2.5 queens outta 5.
What did you think? Was this disappointing? Were you excited to see Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie go head to head? We want to know. Share your thoughts and feelings in the comments section below, and as always, remember to viddy well!