Movie review: 'Mary, Queen of Scots' proves a royal disappointment despite strong leads

  • Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan) returns to Scotland to rule in "Mary, Queen of Scots."

    Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan) returns to Scotland to rule in "Mary, Queen of Scots." Courtesy of Focus Features

 
By Lindsey Bahr
Associated Press
Updated 12/14/2018 9:24 AM

"Mary, Queen of Scots" - ★ ★

"Mary, Queen of Scots" is an ambitious re-imagining of the Mary Stuart and Elizabeth I saga with modern flourishes and bold performances from Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie. But the film, for all its prestige and contemporary messages, is not a particularly engrossing experience.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

It's a shame, too, because most of the elements are there. The gorgeous costumes and meticulous settings are breathtaking, and they couldn't have chosen two leads better suited to playing these women, with Ronan as Mary and Robbie as Elizabeth. The elements just don't come together very well, straddling an awkward line between wanting to be both a modern referendum on the struggles of being a female leader in the 16th century and a "Game of Thrones"-style actioner.

Director Josie Rourke has a knack for grandeur. But choppy editing and stilted story evolution don't do justice to what should be an epic and suspenseful tale of political machinations and power struggles.

Mary, a Catholic widowed at 18 from the King of France, returns to Scotland to rule. She has eyes on England too, which is under the rule of her cousin, Elizabeth I, a Protestant who refuses to marry and produce an heir. A husband, Elizabeth accurately concludes, will just try to take the throne from her.

Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan) sets her sights on the throne of England in "Mary, Queen of Scots."
Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan) sets her sights on the throne of England in "Mary, Queen of Scots." - Courtesy of Focus Features
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But the question of a successor becomes urgent when Mary starts making her own claims to the throne. The two rulers correspond and negotiate in an elaborate game of chess in which everyone is attempting to manipulate an unstable situation. Elizabeth tries to offer up a husband to Mary, in her own lover Robert Dudley (Joe Alwyn), as a strategic plant. But, Mary, seeing through the plan, weds another Englishman, the charismatic Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden), ensuring that her offspring would have a legitimate claim to the throne.

There are interesting ideas to explore about being a powerful woman in this time. But the script from "House of Cards" creator Beau Willimon seems to oversimplify things. He imagines a relationship that devolves mostly because of Elizabeth's jealousy of Mary's youth, beauty and ability to bear children. This point is hammered over and over, as Elizabeth, hearing that Mary is pregnant, gathers her skirt to see what she would look like pregnant in silhouette. The birth scene is even more noxious, cutting back and forth from Mary in labor, to poor, sad Elizabeth creating the only thing she can -- paper flowers.

Queen Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie) faces a challenge for her throne from her cousin in "Mary, Queen of Scots."
Queen Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie) faces a challenge for her throne from her cousin in "Mary, Queen of Scots." - Courtesy of Focus Features

The film takes enormous liberties with history, bringing the two rulers together for a face-to-face conversation, and infusing the cast with more diverse faces and themes to varying degrees of success. That conversation that apparently never happened is well worth the factual leniency. It's the scene that the whole film is building toward and both Robbie and Ronan are extremely compelling -- vulnerable and introspective yet also fierce and unwavering.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Unfortunately the journey to get to this part is long and, for stretches, quite dreary.

• • •

Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Margot Robbie, Joe Alwyn, Jack Lowden

Directed by: Josie Rourke

Other: A Focus Features release. In limited release. Rated R for violence and sexual situations. 112 minutes

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