It was hard to watch Mary Queen of Scots so soon after The Favourite. They are completely different stories, and set four generations apart, but they are both about Queens of England and are movies that are unabashedly female-driven. But, other than the fact that both movies also have gorgeous costumes, this is where the similarities end. While The Favourite was bold, beautiful and brilliant, Mary Queen of Scots was dreary and disappointing. Although they both feature incredible performances, if you are looking for a royal treat, one is definitely more sumptuous than the other.
On paper, Mary Queen of Scots is a movie that should be awards-worthy. It stars two of Hollywood’s brightest female stars, Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie. Both of them already have Oscar nominations under their belts and I’m sure everyone involved in this production was expecting more awards love for this prototypical Oscar bait period piece from the same production company that produced last year’s Oscar darling, Darkest Hour. [Sidebar: when you use “From Working Title, the producers of Darkest Hour” to advertise the movie, you know they are really reaching] But they forgot something: a good movie is more than one or two great performances. In fact, while we’re talking about Darkest Hour, you can say the same thing about that movie, which was Gary Oldman and nothing much else.
And let’s say this right at the top: Ronan and Robbie are fantastic. While this is billed as a two-hander, Mary Queen of Scots is clearly Ronan’s movie, as she plays the rebellious young ruler who looks to usurp the sitting Queen. We only see Robbie in brief scenes scattered throughout, but she is stellar and memorable in what we do see. As for Ronan, who is a towering talent at 24 with three Oscar nominations already under her belt, she does the best she can with a character who is written as one-dimensional and colorless. I never knew Saoirse Ronan could even give a boring performance until now.
But everything that’s wrong with Mary Queen of Scots has nothing to do with the performances. Directed by first-time director Josie Rourke and written by Beau Willimon and based on the book by John Guy, this movie is thin and unfocused, dreary and confusing. Willimon, who is best known for creating and writing the Netflix series House of Cards and for writing the political drama The Ides of March, is used to writing about political maneuvering, but this movie is nothing but random scenes of people plotting their next move and explaining the consequences of that move. It cuts back and forth from Mary to Elizabeth, as we see snippets of each of their worlds, but in scenes only long enough to barely register. I got historical whiplash from trying to follow who’s who and what’s what.
Everything in Mary Queen of Scots leads up to a crucial meeting between the two women-who-would-be-Queen and I will say, the last 15 minutes of the film that features Mary and Elizabeth finally face to face are truly exceptional, as Ronan and Robbie deliver in every way that the rest of this film doesn’t. But it doesn’t make up for everything that came before it.
If you are a history buff who knows all the players and events portrayed in this movie, you probably will eat it up. But, for everyone else, you will be disappointed by a confusing, disjointed and emotionally hollow movie that could have been so much more, especially considering the two huge talents doing the heavy lifting.