THREE AND A HALF STARS Two queens, two religions and two countries - but only one crown will prevail.
Saiorse Ronan, Margot Robbie
PERIOD DRAMA #MARYQUEENOFSCOTS
More than a few bodices get ripped in this historical drama about two queens, Mary and Elizabeth, wrestling for control of Scotland and by extension, the British Isles. It’s the mid-1500’s and Mary, recently widowed, returns from France full of Catholic verve to assume her rightful place on the Scottish throne. All would be well if she didn’t also have her eyes on the English throne which, unsurprisingly, protestant cousin Elizabeth doesn’t plan handing over any time soon. For the next few decades they circle one another warily while their advisors plot intrigue after intrigue to unsettle or unseat one or the other.
All of this can be gleaned from Wikipedia in about 15 minutes and with better dramatic pacing than director Josie Rourke manages here. MARY, QUEEN OF SCOTS is all very attractive with a production that mostly adheres to historical fact (Elizabeth trowels on makeup after the pox left her deeply scared, for instance). It’s just that the script by Beau Willimon (TV’s House Of Cards) lacks the energy required to engage us fully in the historical high-points such as a brother’s betrayal or the murder of a trusted advisor, before leap-frogging a couple of decades to an unexplored head-chopping. There’s fragile cohesion between events he leverages, and those he lets fall by the wayside. It’s all a bit bewildering really.
Which is not to say that MARY, QUEEN OF SCOTS is a dud. Far from it. Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie in the lead roles are utterly compelling as they, Willimon and Rourke give this historical drama a modern, feminist flip. Here are women determined to rule in their own right while frustrated men bemoan their plight: “How did the world come to this - wise men servicing the whims of women?” #metoo resonates loud and clear, especially when a male advisor tries forcing the hand (and more) from a recently re-widowed Mary. A rabble-rousing priest sees her as nothing but a ‘scourge’ upon the land.
While this reaches for something new in the scope and themes of its narrative, it leans too heavily on the familiar in its telling. Gowns, corsets, horses and swords fail to distinguish this much from, say, ELIZABETH or, more alarming, TV’s The Tudors. The decision to dial down the epic (any episode of Game Of Thrones is bolder in its vision) leaves MARY to simply nudge the edge of her feminist envelope when you really hope she’ll burst it open. Consider the ambition of THE FAVOURITE and again, this feels like the minor chord it is.
To reiterate, MARY, QUEEN OF SCOTS is not a bad film. Far from it. Just not a great one.