If cinema has taught us anything, it’s that history has provided some truly great stories. The British monarchy alone has supplied cinema lovers with countless movies with emotionally riveting stories. There are amazing pieces of filmmaking like “The Madness of King George,” “Beckett,” “Elizabeth,” as well as adaptations of Shakespearean dramas revolving around the royal family.
Even the modern era of British kings and queens has provided viewers with rewarding experiences like “The Queen,” “The King’s Speech” and the Netflix drama “The Crown.” The British monarchy has been a near endless well of stories, featuring drama, tragedy, romance and epic violence.
Unfortunately, “Mary, Queen of Scots” does not make it on the list.
Never has the machinations of those attempting to seize or hold onto power felt so sleight. After two-plus hours dealing with director Josie Rourke’s flaccid, emotionless portrayal of two of history’s most engaging women, I wondered what on earth the point of it all was. On paper it totally makes sense: A movie about Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan) and her attempt to usurp the reign of Queen Elizabeth (Margot Robbie) has all the makings of a delightful film. The story features the kind of political mind games and behind-the-scenes savagery so rampant in this era.
We meet Mary Stuart as she washes ashore from her time spent in France as queen. Her husband is dead and she’s madly working to assemble the pieces needed to challenge her “sister,” Elizabeth, for the throne of the British empire. It doesn’t sit well with Elizabeth, who lacks some of the charisma that makes Mary a more palatable option for the lords who secretly wield power behind the scenes. Elizabeth attempts to box Mary in by forcing her to marry an English lord who is squarely in her pocket. She defies the royal decree and instead marries another scheming English lord who turns out to be a drunk, treacherous lout—also he prefers the company of men.
There’s so much drama in the events being portrayed, but none translate to the screen. The movie is a rapid-fire, fast-paced event of a television series pilot or mini series compressed into two hours.
The film sweeps through relevant moments of drama so fast viewers barely have time to consider the far-reaching ramifications. I can’t remember a movie that whooshed through the story like this. Rourke handles the material like a hyperactive race to the finish line. She never holds onto a moment, or allows a second to absorb anything. It’s like a merchant-ivory movie on Quaalude. The story of Mary, Queen of Scots told by someone who had just snorted 10 rails of premium cocaine.
Movies like this are always fascinating because there’s so much they get right. The casting is great. Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie are wonderful performers, but they’re given so little to do. Mary never comes across as particularly bright or passionate. She is outdone by her hubris, but we never get that window into her madness. She was a woman who believed she was divinely chosen to rule, but she kind of drifts through scenes without presence. Robbie has plenty of presence. Her Elizabeth is far more interesting, but the movie spends far less time with her.
The rest of the cast features a fine ensemble of British and Scottish actors delivering more metered performances. The movie feels engineered to allow the two female leads to shine, but they never really get the chance. I didn’t completely dislike “Mary, Queen of Scots” because it moves so quickly—though, I don’t think there was a scene longer than four minutes. Nevertheless, the pace felt like a disservice to the material and the two main actresses, which makes the entire enterprise rushed. It is like history for people with short attention spans. The stakes never feel high. The world the two powerful women inhabit is woefully small in scope.
All the elements are here for a good, old-fashioned historical epic, but Rourke drops the scepter, and makes viewers wonder just why these two are so worked up. What’s the point of their power struggle? Why should anyone care? In the end, I didn’t. The fate of Mary mattered little, and given the talent involved, that’s a tragedy.