Coming off the high of last years Lady Bird, Saoirse Ronan returns to the spotlight as Mary in this carefully directed yet stunted period piece that despite many different qualities never quite feels like a piece of cinema designed for entertainment. Feeling more like a history lesson for most of its run, Josie Rourke’s directorial debut feels too overly simplistic to even pull that off. That isn’t to say there aren’t things to admire here, it just doesn’t carry through to a functional film.
Telling the story of Mary (Ronan) who upon her return to England attempts to shore up her position as next in line for the English throne with her cousin Elizabeth (Margot Robbie), the current Monarch. Despite her position as queen of Scotland, Mary as next in line works to secure her family’s future but in doing so brings about new struggles and infighting in a Scotland actively plotting her downfall. While the two queens attempt to secure their legacies they must handle the affairs of men and their lust for power.
It must be said that despite being a History graduate, I know very little about Mary Queen of Scots or the reign of Elizabeth. However, Rourke’s film and Beau Willimon’s uses the facts of Mary’s life and intertwines them with modern twists and elements that to us seem abhorrent. It’s in this evolution that the film gets diluted to fit a message that doesn’t quite belong here. Rourke tells her story through the lens of 2019 and while these queens are formidable, they worked within their circles not outside of them and Willimon writes them as outsiders. Ambitious and stubborn, almost foolishly so, Mary and Elizabeth are idolised, not characterised. All the emotion here is skin deep, never quite sinking into what makes them special or worthy of following.
Cleverly directed, at least visually, Rourke’s film lacks the drama and necessary pacing to make Mary’s decline compelling. The film is painfully vanilla despite a wonderful use of space alluding to the walls closing in around Mary, everything else is glass half empty. Despite a clear desire to fill this story with certain themes that bond these women to each other like power, motherhood and legacy it never quite comes through due to a script full of droll, overly floral dialogue that does little to play into the grander ideas Rourke is going for. Grey in both its palette and writing, this never has the sense of urgency or importance that it sorely needs.
Hidden within however are two stellar performances from Robbie and Ronan with the former being a clear highlight with Elizabeth, unfortunately only a supporting character in this tale, brimming with unspoken contempt. Her queen harbours feelings of resentment, pettiness and admiration while making the dull machinations she must orchestrate seem almost bearable. Robbie makes the most of her limited scenes despite being accompanied by a histrionic Guy Pearce.
Ronan on the other hand plays her scenes as they come, never quite bringing them together as part of a whole. Her work in the moment is impressive but the character seems disjointed by comparison and the constant jumping of location and political position do not help matters. It proves difficult to get a handle on Mary, never really knowing her in any meaningful way. Ronan however pushes through this enough to make an impression, despite her story being bogged down by an equally theatrical David Tennant.
The comparisons between the two queens suffer, not because of performance or even how they are shown on-screen but because of how unimportant Elizabeth seems to the story in general. Sidelined and ambivalent to the events within, Elizabeth is above the fray, watching but never entering into it, which makes the film’s conclusion and their eventual meeting seem inconsequential. Supposedly the culmination of events, there is no climax. The ending is not the proud moment of defiance that Rourke plays it for despite her exclamations.
Mary Queen of Scots might be someone worth learning about, she changed a nation after all, but all the shoehorned symbolism and lacklustre scripting leads us to a conclusion that doesn’t feel earned and both of these women deserve better. Ending on a whimper, instead of a scream, it’s fitting the film begins and ends with Mary’s death because more than anything, this film is lifeless.