Haughty, well-dressed, and operatic, Mary Queen of Scots would be noteworthy in another era of moviemaking. Hell, even five or ten years ago it might have been that late-season historical drama that looks formulaic, but still becomes required pre-Oscar viewing just so you know about the movie that cleans up in the artistic categories and an acting nod or two.
If there’s any justice this year, it’s that the accolades will be severed from Mary Queen of Scots (the movie) more swiftly than the executioner’s axe severed the head of Mary Queen of Scots (the person). She spent nineteen years in prison, and the movie’s two-hour runtime feels pretty close to that at moments.
For anyone who snoozed through the history of 16th-century England, much of it was consumed by internecine conflicts for the throne between the Tudors—the descendants of wife-execution-enthusiast Henry VIII—and the Stuarts, their Scottish, Catholic cousins. And the hottest fight of all was the one between Elizabeth I and Mary Stuart.
By the time Mary Queen of Scots begins, in 1561, Mary (Saoirse Ronan) is returning to Scotland after spending most of her childhood in France, where she was briefly married to the then-dauphin. But with him dead, and Elizabeth (Margot Robbie) on the throne in London and heirless, Mary’s primed to stake her claim.
Any hopes Elizabeth or Mary would have at ruling are quickly and repeatedly undone by the scheming and plotting of their courts. Perhaps that’s not terribly surprising, considering the screenwriter, Beau Willimon, created the U.S. version of House of Cards. Much like Willimon’s recently wrapped Netflix series, Mary Queen of Scots strains under a barrage of plot twists, none of which really get a chance to breathe.
Working off British history John Guy’s 2004 novelistic biography of the Scottish queen, the film portrays Mary’s life as a series of betrayals. Mary’s second husband, Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden), has a line to the English throne and a talented tongue – in more ways than one – but spends their wedding night with her male Italian courtier (Ismael Cruz Córdova).
Mary’s also got to deal with Protestant uprisings in her backyard, led by her side-switching half-brother (James McArdle) and a bedraggled priest (David Tennant). Hits rantings about the Catholic queen – “We have a pestilence: a woman with a crown!” and “She is a servant of Satan!” – serve as Greek choruses of royal misogyny.
Meanwhile, there’s Elizabeth and her court figuring out how to compartmentalize their beguiling neighbor. A brief northerly invasion falls flat; afterward, they flirt with schemes to offer Elizabeth’s closest suitor (Joe Alwyn) as a husband to Mary.
Some version of most of these events actually happened, though Willimon’s script and director Josie Rourke’s staging largely lets Elizabeth off the hook. In reality, by the time Mary returned from France, Elizabeth had already outlived and outmaneuvered two siblings for the throne and was waging wars in Ireland and continental Europe. But the filmmakers prefer to keep Robbie’s Elizabeth cooped up, swaying between pouts over her inability to produce an heir and crumpling papers in frustration with her Scottish cousin’s beauty/charm.
Indeed, Mary Queen of Scots is at its most cumbersome when it tries to adhere to stereotypical costume-drama femininity, while also tugging at modernity. A line like “One minute does not make a man,” Mary’s taunt to Darnley after he reveals his true self is snappy, yet she never appears to show any concern that their baby — the future King James I — was conceived through marital rape.
Other decisions, notably Rourke’s filling the English and Scottish courts with actors of color—Gemma Chan, Adrian Lester, and Córdova—go far in making Mary Queen of Scots less pasty than your average feuding-royalty flick. But Córdova gets a blatantly Shakespearean offing, Chan and Lester are mostly there to dwell just off to Elizabeth’s side.
And then there’s that makeup. Elizabeth, who spent 1564 suffering from smallpox, did cake herself in white powder and outlandish wigs to mask her sores. But it’s so overdone on Robbie, she looks more Clown Empress than Virgin Queen. Likewise, Tennant’s fake beard is so huge and wild that his invective against Mary is like the besotted rantings of a drunk Gandalf.
Put together, Mary Queen of Scots quickly collapses on itself, and that’s a bit of a pity considering some of Rourke’s noble attempt to modernize this age-worn story while staying in the strict confines of a royal court drama. But in a year with so many films praised for their inventive takes on storytelling and representation—to say nothing of a wildly pleasurable inversion of the genre in The Favourite—Mary Queen of Scots just feels unnecessary.