Feminism meets the reality of 16th century Scotland in Mary Queen of Scots, a movie in which Saoirse Ronan does her best to present Mary Stuart as a cunning, progressive leader—even as the men around her largely control her fate. The movie, from first-time director Josie Rourke, is an alluring if somewhat uneven debut that falters in the end, especially as, you know, historical fact begins to rear its ugly head.
Ronan is excellent as the title character, who returns from France and lays claim to the English throne—even though her cousin Queen Elizabeth (an unrecognizable Margot Robbie) is already in power. The two duel from afar, fighting both each other and their alleged confidantes—all male and seemingly all uncomfortable with a female leader, let alone two.
Rourke and screenwriter Beau Willimon clearly are fascinated with the gender dynamics at play, which works for a while until they have to bring everything back around to how things ultimately turned out for their subject (history lesson: not so well). As much as Rourke and Willimon attempt to apply modern philosophies here, they lose their way in the third act, unable to reconcile their themes with the story’s inevitable conclusion.
Ronan is a great find to play Mary Stuart, and seeing what she could do in a more brutal take on the figure would be fascinating. As is, the actress appears to be just as trapped as her character, a fierce personality restrained by forces around her. The screenplay, while good scene by scene, never lets her fully break out, never reach her full potential.
Where Mary Queen of Scots really struggles is in its dichotomy between Mary and Elizabeth. Rourke and Willimon obviously wanted to draw similarities and kinship between the two female leaders, but it doesn’t entirely work. Robbie’s take on Elizabeth is a weak one—not the fault of the actress as much the screenplay—a strategically wishy washy, largely uninspiring take that serves more as distraction from the story taking place in Scotland than a complement to it.
The film’s issue is epitomized in the movie’s final, extremely disappointing scene, in which Mary and Elizabeth finally meet in a laundry room only to hide behind sheets and talk in circles. The movie seemingly was building to this one moment, yet it’s a letdown of epic proportions, a result of confused purpose.
Still, Mary Queen of Scots has a lot to like. The first hour is strong, the progression of Mary as she asserts her command intriguing if not somewhat baffling at times. The movie looks great, too; it’s hard to take your eyes off it, thanks to not only the beautiful direction but the fantastic sets, makeup, and costumes.
Sadly, in the end, Mary Queen of Scots is aesthetically pleasing but ultimately a bit shallow. Its attempts to go deeper fall short, just like Mary Stuart’s attempts to rule England.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.