Yaaas kween! Get ready to rumble. In one corner is Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie), barren monarch of England and Ireland. In the other is her 19-year-old cousin Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan), newly seated ruler of Scotland. Mary had lived in France since age 5 and ended up married to King Francis II. But upon his death, she returns to claim her place as Head of State. Trouble is, Mary’s bloodline also gives her a legitimate claim to Elizabeth’s throne. Cocooned by their respective male-dominated courts, the two use shuttling emissaries to carve out a wary epistolary relationship. And when Mary gets pregnant with the true heir to both kingdoms, initial mistrust eventually leads to deceit, duplicity, and then murder.
OK, OK, enough with the Cliff’s Notes. So is Mary Queen of Scots any good? Expect an airy soufflé that should have been a meaty feast. This sumptuous historical pageant boasts the heavyweight pairing of Ronan and Robbie but regrettably pulls its punches in a #MeToo-accented account of 16th century regal intrigue. Adding insult to injury is a bad-timing release date mere weeks after The Favourite, another drama of regal hijinks that is far more wickedly illuminating about sisterhood treachery.
MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS ★★ (2/5 stars)
Directed by: Josie Rourke
Written by: Beau Willimon
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Margot Robbie, Jack Lowden, Joe Alwyn, David Tennant, Guy Pearce
Running time: 125 min.
But Mary Queen of Scots isn’t without its delights. The factual details are ripe for melodrama, and British theater director Josie Rourke, making her film debut, doesn’t miss a chance to scream when she could whisper. A lingering shot of Mary’s menstrual blood in a handmaiden’s water basin? This girl is fertile. The famously boil-ravaged visage of Elizabeth, cursed with “the pox,” dooms her to heavy facial powder and scarlet wigs? Suddenly she’s Pennywise from It.
And the sneaky suitors, servants, and kin that surround them all have their own agendas, performed with vigorous relish. Just watch love interest Lord Henry Darnley (Jack Lowden) use his guile as a cunning linguist to woo Mary’s heart. “Don’t worry about me,” he leers to the queen during a boudoir visit, practically wiping his mouth after pleasuring her orally. Generous lover or conjugal opportunist? Either way, he’s a hoot. And can Elizabeth really trust raspy advisor William Cecil (Guy Pearce) or dashing lover Robert Dudley (Joe Alwyn)? Then again, she’s always suspecting revolt from all sides, which makes her an effective monarch but a miserable person.
Everyone is constantly meeting in these drafty, tapestry-draped chambers illuminated by candlelight. The performances are never less than intense, with lines hissed in a whisper, spat through gritting teeth or growled with vein-popping indignation. I get it, no one can trust anyone else. But honestly it all blurs together, since the stakes always seem unimaginably high. And when every encounter is amped up, the white noise of anxiety becomes numbing.
The script doesn’t really help, with a self-seriousness dissonant to the purplish plot twists. “England doesn’t look so different from Scotland,” says Elizabeth in one of the film’s many shallow profundities. “Be whoever you wish with us,” says über-tolerant Mary to a gender-fluid manservant spinning around in a dress. Yawn.
And despite all their warrior-woman posturing, and all the lip service to their respective strengths, the two women ultimately wear their crowns like handcuffs. Neither can outmatch the scheming men who use and abuse them, ultimately leading to Mary’s execution and Elizabeth’s shell-hardened asexual reign. Why? Because men suck and women are weak?
Console yourself with the simple pleasures. Irish lass Ronan doing a chewy Scottish brogue. Robbie’s wildly prosthetic beak. Finger-snapping, drop-dead costumes filigreed to perfection. Fabulous hammerhead hairdos everywhere. That fact that Mary’s fair-weather half-brother James Stewart (James McArdle), with his heavy beard and long locks, looks less like the Regent of Scotland and more like a Brooklyn barista. Or that Mary occasionally breaks into French like an exchange student back from a semester abroad. There’s much to enjoy in this harrowing history lesson, but not much to love.