“Mary Queen of Scots” initially seems to have all the right ingredients for a compelling period drama. While it has two talented actresses at its center, it is also equipped with commendable technical aspects including authentic period atmosphere, so I enjoyed it to some degree, but it is unfortunately marred by its ponderous screenplay which tries to cram too many things into its two-hour running time. As a result, the overall result is rather tepid without enough wit and spirit, and it did not leave much impression despite the considerable efforts from its two leading actresses.
The movie mainly revolves around the tumultuous seven-year period in the life of Mary, Queen of Scots (Saoirse Ronan), and, right after the opening scene showing her execution in 1587, it shows us her arrival in Scotland, 1561. After her husband, who was the King of France, died, Mary decides to come back to her country, and she is quite determined to be a good ruler for her country while also hoping to be named as the heir apparent to the English throne, which is currently being occupied by her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I of England (Margot Robbie).
While Mary surely has the right to succeed Elizabeth, there is one significant problem. Because of her Catholic background, she has been a potential threat to not only Elizabeth but also many Protestants in England and Scotland, and she is virtually insulted by a hardcore Protestant cleric named John Knox (David Tennant) when she tries to show her country and its people that she has no problem with freedom of religion.
As Mary attempts to be friendlier with her, Elizabeth becomes more watchful for Mary even though she recognizes Mary’s sincerity. After discussing with her high-ranking officials including William Cecil (Guy Pearce), she decides to send Sir Robert Dudley (Joe Alwyn) to her cousin as a potential suitor, but Mary instantly recognizes Elizabeth’s intention, and, despite the strong objections from many others including her half-brother, she subsequently marries her distant cousin Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden) instead mainly because he looks far less ambitious in comparison.
This decision of hers soon leads her and her country into a number of troubles. Her half-brother and several other Scottish noblemen come to rebel against her while secretly supported by Elizabeth, and that certainly hurts Mary, who has trusted and depended on her half-brother. In addition, her husband turns out to be not that trustworthy right from their wedding night, but Mary has no choice but to try anything for bearing a son who may inherit both England and Scotland someday.
In the meantime, Elizabeth comes to recognize Mary more as her equal. Especially after she decides not to marry for living as the sole monarch of her country, she clearly discerns that Mary is indeed someone who can succeed her, but then Mary’s political position becomes less stable not long after she gives birth to her son James, and then she eventually becomes someone quite expendable as swept into the brutal intrigues inside her court. During one savage scene, she helplessly watches her favorite minstrel murdered by Lord Darnley and other noblemen, and there later comes another cruel moment as she is forced to marry again shortly after Lord Darnley’s death.
Around that part, the movie is supposed to engage us more into this tricky political circumstance surrounding Mary and Elizabeth, but the adapted screenplay by Beau Willimon, which is based on “Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart” by John Guy, merely trudges from one narrative point to another without generating much interest for us. Even during the expected scene where Mary and Elizabeth finally meet each other, the movie feels flat and hollow, and the following ending is disappointingly anti-climactic without much dramatic impact to linger on our mind.
Anyway, director Josie Rourke, who has been mainly known for her stage works in Britain and makes a directorial debut here in this film, did a competent job of handling the technical aspects of her film. While I appreciate some notable period details in the film, I particularly like the striking visual contrast between the shady mood of Scotland and the brighter ambience of England, and cinematographer John Mathieson occasionally provides wide and gloomy landscape shots to be watched on big screen.
Although the movie is not exactly their best moment, two lead actresses of the movie did as much as they could with their respective roles. While Saoirse Ronan, who has constantly impressed us since her Oscar-nominated supporting turn in “Atonement” (2007), brings pluck and grace to her character as required, Margot Robbie, who was recently Oscar-nominated for her terrific performance in “I, Tonya” (2017), imbues her character with steely qualities as demanded, and it is a shame that the movie did not utilize well their talent. In case of the other notable performers in the film such as Guy Pearce, David Tennant, Jack Lowden, Joe Alwyn, Ian Hart, and Adrian Lester, they are seriously wasted in their thankless roles, and most of them do not have many things to do except looking dour and solemn throughout the movie.
On the whole, “Mary Queen of Scots” is not a total failure mainly thanks to Ronan and Robbie, but it failed to make me care enough about its story and characters. After I came out of the screening room, I became more curious about the 1971 film of the same name starring Vanessa Redgrave and Glenda Jackson, and I guess I will soon have to check out whether that film is better than this disappointing misfire.