Sometimes it’s easier to see and understand current truths through the lens of history, and that’s one of Mary Queen of Scots’ greatest assets. It’s far from a home run with some major snags including pacing and emotional detachment at the beginning of the movie, but the film still manages to resonate as a story about a woman of great power fighting to lead amongst men.
Saoirse Ronan stars as Mary Stuart. When Mary does not remarry after the passing of her husband, King Francis II, she leaves France and returns home to Scotland to reclaim the throne. As a devout Catholic, Mary’s homecoming further stirs the hostility between the Catholic and Protestant factions in Scotland, and also ignites a power struggle between Mary and England’s Protestant Queen, Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie), who’s deeply concerned about Mary’s claim to the throne.
Mary Queen of Scots is largely about Mary Stuart’s journey and, as usual, Ronan is absolutely flawless in the role, but the movie doesn’t really come to life until Mary’s marriage to Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden) turns sour, as that specific event adds some especially interesting and dynamic layers to Mary and Elizabeth’s relationship. Unfortunately though, that doesn’t happen until roughly midway through the film. The information conveyed and the experiences shared before that are vital to both Mary and Elizabeth’s arc and what proves to be a very powerful finish, but in the moment, the material paving the way there feels detached and cold. As someone who is not especially well versed in this 16th century royal upheaval, it took me a little longer than I’d like to commit all the main players and their allegiances to memory, and that’s something that kept me from investing and connecting for far too long.
Similarly, along the way, Mary makes a few decisions that come across as a bit out of character – at least as she’s presented in this iteration of her story. For instance, digging into Mary’s decision to marry Lord Darnley further may have served the middle of the film well. Political concerns are clearly running through everyone’s veins the entire movie, but the script also seems to suggest that Mary was indeed swept away by Darnley romantically. Seeing and suspecting this is very different from truly feeling it though and at that point in the film, Mary seemed far too smart and capable to fall for the charms of someone who was branded such a glaring red flag.
Sure, you could breeze through a Wikipedia page or perhaps read the book the movie is based on, Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart by John Guy, but in the moment, big decisions like this still need to be justified – whether it’s through careful thought and consideration or a believable sudden impulse – and here, neither happens. Moments like these contribute to the delay in delivering the sensation that these aren’t just stories from a history textbook, but rather fully realized people being consumed by a dangerous power struggle and that, in turn, severely diminishes the stakes of the first half of the film.
Similarly, select supporting characters feel too far removed from the main events of the film. David Tennant steps in as John Knox, a Protestant man who condemns Mary and attempts to rally the public against her. It’s a vital component of her story and Tennant gets a couple of monologues that he knocks out of the park, but their impact is diminished due to how Knox is incorporated in the script. His preachings do have an effect on Mary, but as they play in the film, they feel separate.
However, there is a point when all of this suddenly converges and comes into focus and when that happens, it’s devastating to say the least. These are two women of great power who more often than not, come across as very capable of wielding it well, but they’re surrounded and suffocated by manipulative male advisors and the constant threat of losing their power. Blind assumptions are made due to gender and religion, and those assumptions completely destroy the Queens’ abilities to reach peak potential and possibly see their respective nations thrive. It’s a truly chilling realization that proved to weigh especially heavily on my mind after the film wrapped up, despite its rather dull start.
And when this happens, it’s further amplified by the fact that it all comes together for the viewer just as it comes together for Mary herself. Much of the beginning of the movie is about following along as Mary attempts to move the pieces around the board and make the best decisions possible, but then just as she’s swallowed whole by the reality of her situation, what’s really going on around her and how there’s no escaping it, so are you. That’s when the tension and suspense peaks, and you’re hanging on Mary and Elizabeth’s every word. You may have read that Ronan and Robbie only filmed one scene together for this movie, and that scene is everything you could hope for then some.
Mary Queen of Scots may not be an all-around knockout, but it does show signs of big screen promise for director Josie Rourke. There’s one battle scene where the shot selection makes it challenging to follow the action, but when the movie puts Ronan or Robbie center stage, Rourke wisely lets the camera sit, relishing their every word. Mary Queen of Scots is also dripping with gorgeous costume and production design, another element of the film Rourke lavishes in capturing with Academy Award nominated cinematographer John Mathieson.
Perhaps the big question now is, is the slow, dreary beginning worth watching for the compelling conclusion? While there’s no excuse for a film to be this disjointed, that question is still getting a resounding “yes” from me because ultimately, Rourke, Ronan and Robbie overcome that flaw shockingly well. I found myself frustrated and admittedly bored throughout much of the beginning of the film, but I walked out completely consumed by the fact that, as Elizabeth states in the movie, Mary’s gifts were her downfall, and as a woman striving to grow in a male dominated industry, it’s crushing to hear that uttered from one woman in power to another with such conviction.