Mary Queen of Scots is a historical costume drama that, unlike The Favourite, does not breathe new life into the genre, or any kind of life, even of the old accustomed sort. It is lifeless, in other words, and quite the slog, with jerky pacing, such an abundance of bearded men you lose track of which bearded man is which, and it reduces two of history’s most fascinating women to not much of anything. However, on the plus side, the scenery is ravishing, the two leads (Saoirse Ronan as Mary and Margot Robbie as Elizabeth I) are better than the film probably deserves, and the hair and make-up are cheeringly insane. By the end, Elizabeth most put me in mind of Ronald McDonald.
Directed by Josie Rourke, artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse theatre in London, with a script by Beau Willimon (House of Cards), this is about the relationship between the two Queens, and their beef, as it were. Elizabeth is Queen of England and Protestant, while her cousin, Mary, is Queen of Scotland, Catholic, and wants Elizabeth’s throne, which Elizabeth isn’t chuffed about, obviously. The two, in fact, never met although they do here, latterly, in a weird shed hung with gauze. (History buffs have already gone to town on all the factual inaccuracies, if you wish to look them up elsewhere.)
The film opens with Mary being beheaded and then spools back in time. American audiences have complained about this being ‘a spoiler’ and, to be fair, I’m with them. I had forgotten that Mary was beheaded and it did reduce my investment in any outcome by quite a percentage. (Maybe even as much as 92 per cent.) During the first portion of the film, the narrative hops, skips and jumps between England and Scotland as the two Queens fight it out, mostly by letter, or by sending one of their many, many bearded advisers — which one is this one again? Whose side is this one on again? — who we have to see arriving and departing. Every. Single. Time.
To be fair, again, the film wants to make the point that the women might have reached some kind of accord had they been spared the bearded men, who are always dropping poison in their ears. Down with the patriarchy! But this is so clumsily achieved it is even spoken out loud all the time. ‘How cruel men are,’ Elizabeth might say, while the beards hiss about being ‘wise men servicing the whims of women’.
There is, I suppose, plenty of drama. Mary marries badly in exchange for oral sex. Or so this film would have us believe. Her personal secretary is stabbed in front of her very eyes. Her half-brother — the beard that is Lord Moray, I think — raises an army against her. But, as Elizabeth is increasingly sidelined, this all happens with such little feeling for storytelling that there is no momentum, or tension, or indication of what we should be experiencing emotionally, so we experience nothing. It is also too fractured to give us any sense of the tumult of the time. For example, David Tennant, who plays John Knox, the Protestant preacher who was a thorn in Mary’s side, might just as well have been starring in his own separate film, so little was he actually threaded into the narrative.
Ronan and Robbie are compelling presences, but as Elizabeth is pretty much constrained to confabs with her main beard (Guy Pearce’s Lord Cecil) and Mary’s romantic involvements take over, the film loses sight of what it is about, assuming it had decided on that in the first instance. And there is little either actress can do to counter this, just as they can’t develop characters that aren’t written interestingly, and can’t overcome some extremely odd decisions. Why does Elizabeth age down the years but not Mary? And why is Elizabeth ushered down that road to clowndom? No idea. I can only say that when it came to the weird shed-gauze moment, and Elizabeth trucked up as Ronald McDonald, I tittered. Not proud, but there you are.