Focus Features/124 min.
Mary Queen of Scots, starring Irish actress Saoirse Ronan as the titular Scottish queen, and featuring Australian actress Margot Robbie as her English contemporary, Elizabeth I, is an exercise in endurance. Directed with the visual fidelity of a made for TV movie with a big budget, Mary Queen of Scots makes a false promise to the audience in the first scene of the film. From the stylized cinematics, color palette, and writing, it foreshadows something contemplative, thoughtfully filmed, and, well, good.
To rewind a moment, though, the movie shows you how it is going to be in the text card before the aforementioned intro scene. Telling the audience about how Mary has returned from exile in France to seek the throne of England, for which she has a legitimate claim, we get nothing in the way of personal motivation, sociocultural significance, or anything remotely personal that the film tries to imply when it opens with Mary’s execution (500 year old spoilers).
I don’t mean to blunder, but the movie is frustrating in a bit too many ways for me to tolerate. From the plot-driven narrative which make things happen not because of any personal motivation that involves the audience, but because Mary wants a throne that ultimately plays no significance. People negotiate and backstab, and we don’t know why, but what’s worse is that there is no reason to care. A big part of that is the music of the film, which ironically isn’t that memorable. Tonal mishaps that try to tell the audience how to feel every time a character is hurt, killed, or makes a seemingly life-changing decision, it all becomes a bit of a mess.
This is also due a number of characters in the film allied with either Elizabeth or Mary in their struggle for the Crown. On Mary’s side there is her half-brother, her counselor, a sexist protestant minister, her conniving bodyguard, and a couple conniving English parliamentarians. On Elizabeth’s there is (thankfully only) her ambassador, her counselor, and her boyfriend the stable boy (he takes care of horses, I think). With Mary’s cast of characters it soon becomes clear that there is not enough room to carefully flesh out their individual unique traits, so when they betray Mary for trite reasons like her not being smart enough to rule because she’s a woman (even though they are with her campaign for significant portions of the film), it’s because we’re supposed to care more about Mary. And I certainly would, but throughout the film’s runtime, I never felt as if I had enough time to get to know her.
Contrast that with Margot Robbie’s Elizabeth, who, although she’s more of a featured supporting character than a fully realized counterpart to Mary (with not nearly as much time onscreen), does plenty to flesh out her insecurities and desires. Elizabeth’s own circle of characters is small enough for them to make contributions to Elizabeth as a person, more showcasing her own different character traits, while still coming off as real people on their own.
With Mary, however, it boils down to this: everyone betrays her because they want the power that is hers by right, even though no one has any idea what that power really means (if they knew what it meant, I would too).
Imagine my surprise then at director Josie Rourke’s masterful shots of the Scottish landscape and various aspects of blocking and lighting in certain scenes that intersperse the otherwise quite slow-moving parts of the film. It is in stark contrast to the aforementioned made-for-TV quality of much of the film’s visuals. I don’t have much to say about the shots besides that they are astounding. Mist falling over a dark mountain while Scottish horsemen ride on a road flanked by ancient stones, or a character flanked by people pressuring him to sign a document that will legitimize the murder of his wife’s friend, a candle flickering on the wall above them showing the last flickering light of humanity leaving his soul, or even Mary whispering a Catholic prayer in Latin before she is to be executed. These elements are sparks in an otherwise smoke-filled room. They, along with Saoirse Ronan’s and Margot Robbie’s performances, are the good parts, it’s just unfortunate that that’s about it.