Directed by: Josie Rourke
Premise: After living abroad, Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan) returns to Scotland in 1561 and claims the throne. As a Catholic, she is viewed with suspicion by the English government ruled by Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie) and Mary struggles to hold together her own court.
What Works: Mary Queen of Scots brings history to life in a way that is relevant for the contemporary audience. Much of that is in the film’s production design. Period films sometimes feel too clean and polished as though these locations were just built for the movie (as indeed they may have been). But the sets and costumes of Mary Queen of Scots have a drab and lived-in look. The performances match the environment. The characters speak in a formal dialect but the actors deliver their lines naturally. Many of the best scenes of Mary Queen of Scots involve the title character in behind-the-scenes moments among her handmaids. Mary was in her early twenties when these events took place and she’s portrayed that way. Saoirse Ronan is quite good in the part and she gives Mary youthfulness but also intelligence and wit. Mary Queen of Scots is a portrait of women in a man’s world, mostly as experienced by Mary and Queen Elizabeth I. The film frames events from their point of view and makes visible the way men—intentionally or not—undermine or disrespect women in power.
What Doesn’t: Mary Queen of Scots rarely takes off as a drama. The movie has moments that are dramatic and rousing but the film doesn’t quite come together. Stories are about characters and characters are defined by what they want and what they will do to get it. It’s in that respect that Mary Queen of Scots suffers. It’s never quite clear what Mary’s ambitions are; she’s a mostly passive protagonist to whom things happen instead of the other way around. That doesn’t make for compelling drama. The film also fails to exploit the relationship between Mary and Elizabeth. The film presents itself to be about that relationship and how complex it was and especially how these two rivals also shared an understanding of what it is to be a woman in a man’s world. But the film doesn’t do anything meaningful with that relationship and in fact rushes through some of the most interesting parts of it.
Bottom Line: Mary Queen of Scots is an underwhelming historical feature. The movie has a lot in it that is admirable, especially its production design and performances, but the story is flimsy.
Episode: #732 (January 6, 2019)