Mary Queen of Scots

Mary Queen of Scots

2018, R, 112 min. Directed by Josie Rourke. Starring Saoirse Ronan, Margot Robbie, Jack Lowden, Joe Alwyn, Gemma Chan, Martin Compston, Ismael Cruz Córdova, Brendan Coyle, Ian Hart, Adrian Lester, James McArdle, David Tennant, Guy Pearce.

REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Dec. 14, 2018

What's the point of a historical drama when you learn none of the lessons of history? In 1561, the recently widowed 18-year-old Mary Stuart returned to Scotland from France, sparking a new phase in the complicated dance with England, under the rule of Queen Elizabeth, that was marked by rebellions, intrigues, and political marriages.

Mary Queen of Scots catches the outline but misses all the details. Instead, the oddly ethereal Mary (Ronan, sporting a thick Scottish brogue that the French-raised queen never had) floats across the Channel and is immediately established as an avatar of benevolent governance, while over the border Elizabeth (Robbie) stamps and shrieks at Mary's claim to her throne. The bloody fate of two nations is reduced to the intrafamily squabbles of two royal relatives, with the simplistic underpinning that everything would be fine if they could get along like sisters.

The underlying fault lies with scriptwriter Beau Willimon, who proved his grasp of modern political dynamics with The Ides of March (still regarded by many campaign operatives as the best election movie ever), then asserted his dominance with Netflix's House of Cards. But in his desperate attempt to turn this slice of history into a Lean In/#MeToo metaphor, the contemporary elements seem out of place. Of course a historical drama will never be completely accurate, but by trying to make this a modern tale, Willimon ignores everything that the era had to say about women and race and religion and power. It's never mentioned, for example, that Elizabeth's predecessor on the throne was not her father, Henry VIII, but her half-sister, Mary I, who had her cousin Lady Jane Grey executed so she could ascend to the throne. Royal history was a bloody scrabble, and Willimon's script just doesn't seem to grasp what it meant for post-Reformation England to risk another Catholic monarch, and another round of executions and exilings. He makes Elizabeth seem like an intolerant bully rather than a hardened monarch rightfully fearful of foreign invasion. Questions of rights to the throne become low-grade office politics, with off-kilter diversions into palace intrigue that are more about Willimon deciding what the past was like than ever trying to understand it.

It's a complex period (especially when it comes to women in power) that deserves more than Willimon can give it – and so, too, do the leads. Ronan's Mary is a bundle of cliches, and she rarely seems to do much more than orate the lines. Willimon's script takes one of the most fascinating political operatives of the era – a woman raised to run a country, ambitious and cunning – and turns her into a plaything for the ambitions of deceitful men. Robbie at least embraces the material, even though her Elizabeth is reduced to a weak pastiche of the Virgin Queen, with added daddy issues. It's a performance that is striking in spite of the text, not because of it. Moreover, she is offscreen for so much of the time that she becomes a mere sketch of a character, never providing the narrative counterbalance that Ronan's milquetoast Mary deserves.

Lacking either the primal political brutality of Outlaw King or the delicious barbs of The Favourite, this Mary is a mere pretender.

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Mary Queen of Scots, Josie Rourke, Saoirse Ronan, Margot Robbie, Jack Lowden, Joe Alwyn, Gemma Chan, Martin Compston, Ismael Cruz Córdova, Brendan Coyle, Ian Hart, Adrian Lester, James McArdle, David Tennant, Guy Pearce

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