Review: “Mary Queen of Scots”

2.5 out of 5 stars

In “Mary Queen of Scots,” women rule.  It’s the year 1561, and Elizabeth I (played by Margot Robbie) is the Queen of England.  Her first cousin Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan) returns to Scotland and reclaims her throne after the death of her husband, the King of France.  They both have the ultimate authority in a time when men are typically in charge, but this also makes them rivals, as Mary as a legitimate claim to Elizabeth’s throne and seeks to be named successor.

“Mary Queen of Scots,” which is directed by Josie Rourke, is primarily set in the time between Mary’s return to Scotland in 1561 and her imprisonment almost a decade later.  While the primary focus of the film is Mary, it does flip flop often between her and Elizabeth, revealing the similarities and differences between these rival queens.  Elizabeth is unmarried and unable to produce an heir, and a bout with the pox leaves her face scarred and her hair falling out.  It’s evident that she sees herself not as a woman among men, but a man.  Mary, meanwhile, is young and beautiful, and seeks a husband so she can have a son to succeed her.  But it’s her relationships with men that—according to this film, anyway (much of the information presented is up for debate, though it does hit a lot of events that did occur)—lead to her downfall.

Margot Robbie undergoes an incredible transformation as Queen Elizabeth I

Both Robbie and Ronan are electrifying in their roles.  Robbie exudes strength but also makes the queen’s insecurities evident.  Ronan carries herself with all the confidence and power of a queen.  Jack Lowden plays Lord Darnley, Mary’s husband, and he’s appropriately despicable, while fans of this year’s another royal family drama, “The Favourite,” will likely recognize Joe Alwyn, who here plays Elizabeth’s close friend Robert Dudley.  A heavily bearded David Tennant gets to shout angrily as John Knox, the Protestant cleric who preaches against the rule of the Catholic Mary, and Guy Pearce makes an appearance as Elizabeth’s advisor, William Cecil.

So the cast is excellent, as are the sets, hair and make-up, and costumes—all the right ingredients for a solid period drama.  But “Mary Queen of Scots” doesn’t seem to know if it wants to be a political thriller or a soap opera, and vacillates between the two.  While there is plenty of political drama, some of it slow and contributing to the uneven pacing of the movie, some of it quite fascinating, particularly the interactions between Elizabeth and Mary, the off-putting tawdriness of other scenes undermines all of it.  The women may still come out as the ones with power in the end, but it’s apparent which scenes are based in fact and which were likely fabricated for dramatic effect.  Ronan and Robbie, Hollywood royalty in their own right, deserve better.

Runtime: 124 minutes. Rated R.

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