In a time in which the staunchly pro-Remain people of Scotland face disaster solely due to the arrogant mistakes of their Brexit-ing English neighbours, it feels fitting to have two films in the same year tackling the historical injustices wrought against the Scots by the might of the English crown. First, we had the blood and thunder Outlaw King, and now here comes Mary Queen of Scots, which examines – in far less gory and action-packed detail – how its eponymous monarch was doomed from the very start of her reign by male jealousy and English terror.
Even as she’s welcomed back to her homeland as queen, Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan) has forces conspiring against her. Her English cousin Queen Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie) fears a challenge to her throne and, closer to home, conservative Protestant preacher John Knox (David Tennant in a giant beard) is stirring up violent resentment against the reign of a Catholic woman. An attempt to unify the kingdoms through a tactical marriage between Mary and nobleman Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden) only makes tensions worse, and civil war soon erupts.
This story is not told very clearly. It’s sometimes hard to tell a lot of the background characters apart, and the labyrinthine politics of pride that govern every key player’s actions are often impenetrable, whilst the romantic side of things is given short shrift in Beau Willimon’s script. When it tightens its focus, it can be very effective, honing in on specific aspects of Mary and Elizabeth’s conflicting personalities and how it made war between them inevitable. Mary’s dawning realisation of the fact that, no matter how valid her claims to leadership are, power will always be left to the men who can muster violence for their cause is also well handled, but there’s a bagginess to the film as a whole. Ronan is strong as Mary, especially in the first third of the film, charismatically hosting extravagant parties and engaging in funny, giggly gossip with her ladies in waiting.
Elizabeth, though, fares a lot worse. Robbie does her best, but is miscast in a weakly written role that portrays the queen as weepy and irrational – a harsh assessment that simply does not match up with her historical record. A climactic meeting between Mary and Elizabeth throws this problem into sharp relief, the emotional blows simply not landing when Elizabeth goes full antagonist and puts a final end to Mary’s hopes of a long reign. The finale is then choppily handled, a significant time jump robbing it of potential impact and generally proving, as a lot of the final third does, rather confusing.
Of course, everything looks gorgeous, and Alexandra Byrne’s costumes deserve effusive praise. Without ever feeling out of step with the period, Mary’s outfits have a thrillingly modern and racy snap to them, standing out brightly against the low lights of her castle or the misty Scottish landscapes. Josie Rourke, making her directorial debut, conjures some wonderful, painterly shots, but her theatre roots are obvious throughout. This is largely a chamber piece, fuelled more by conversation than war, and the choreography of the film is undeniably stagy, even in a central battle scene. Though there a lot of individual elements that work in Mary Queen of Scots (Guy Pearce, doing his best David Attenborough impression, is a lot of fun as Elizabeth’s chief advisor William Cecil), they never quite come together to create a compelling whole.