MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS – A Less than Exceptional Film Saved by Two Brilliant Leads

Epic cast, epic costumes, and a riveting true story. Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie doing the battle of the royal redheads – I’m in!! Kernel Jack headed in and reviewed this historic period film that will get some Oscar buzz in the coming weeks. MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS releases this Thursday 17th January in Australia from the fine folks at Universal Pictures. It is rated M and runs for 124mins. Enjoy Jack’s thoughts below…….all the best……JK.

BY JACK DIGNAN

SYNOPSIS:

After an upbringing in France, Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan) returns home to Scotland, where she reclaims her rightful title as heir of the throne. But Mary’s rights stretch further than that. She is, technically, the heir to England, and is the only person with the ability to dethrone Queen Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie), who has found herself rather unwell in recent years. When word reaches Elizabeth, the two begin a secret rivalry that spans years, all without ever meeting eye to eye, as the film builds towards a fateful finale.

Mary Queen of Scots Margot Robbie image
Margot Robbie

THE POWER OF POLITICS:

There’s a fascinating political power play at work in MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS that elevates this otherwise uneventful true story into something endlessly fascinating. It’s a period piece anchored in truth, but brought to life for a modern era, reflecting on a time where two of history’s most powerful women began a rivalry that shaped the future of Europe and changed history forever. You’ll be bewildered to learn that this is the debut feature of Josie Rourke. Her skills feel akin to that of the all time greats.

If you’re aware of how history plays out, or if you’ve merely read the IMDb synopsis, the events that transpire shouldn’t surprise. This isn’t some revitalized examination of history that seeks out to uncover new truths. MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS tells its story exactly as is, both for better and worse. The reflection upon the past examines, surprisingly but effectively, women in power and the men who felt as though their masculinity was in question because of this. 

Mary Queen of Scots Saoirse Ronan image
Saoirse Ronan

FRAGILE MASCULNITY:

Never is this more evident than in David Tennant’s storyline. His character, John Knox, shares the littlest screen time with any of the main characters, which is saying a lot given than Elizabeth and Mary don’t meet face to face until the film’s closing act. Instead, his scenes deviate more into religiously charged speeches, or, more accurately, public vents. His bewilderment and uproar at having a woman leader serves as a reflection of MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS’ primary themes in the most on the nose of ways, but Tennant commands the screen with every syllable. 

Mary Queen of Scots Margot Robbie image
Bring Me My Pig

TWO INCOMPARABLE LEADS:

But this is far from Tennant’s movie, and he isn’t even the most effective at playing into this concept of fragile masculinity (that honour belongs to Jack Lowden’s portrayal of Henry Darnley, Mary’s second husband and father to her eventual child). The real stars of the show are Ronan and Robbie, who are two of my favourite actors teaming up on the big screen for a powerhouse display of finely tuned talent. Each performer is brilliant in unique ways. Ronan’s portrayal of Mary is fiery and brave, and it sees a much more mature turn for the Oscar nominated actress, which contrasts perfectly with Robbie’s vulnerable, frequently bedridden, but equally engaging portrayal of Elizabeth.

Despite their relations and their secret quests to dethrone the other, the two characters spend a majority of this movie separated, communicating only through gifts and mutual acquaintances. Each story is fascinating as these two women each attempt to complete their own agenda, intertwined without ever connecting. The film may shy away from the hideousness brought upon from Elizabeth’s disease, but the makeup work remains astounding. However, a lot of scenes just sort of… happen. There’s no buildup, no resonance and little pay off, before we’re flung into the next scene and the movie continues. 

Mary Queen of Scots Jack Lowden, Saoirse Ronan and James McArdle image
Jack Lowden, Saoirse Ronan and James McArdle

A BREATHTAKING FINALE:

In fact, outside of stellar performances and rich thematics, the film struggles to achieve brilliance until it arrives at its culminating confrontation. Whether Mary and Elizabeth actually met in real life is up for debate, but the cinematic depiction is captivating in ways that all great cinema is. A lot of the best lines are given away in the trailer, and given the greatness of the scene I would advise avoiding it if possible, but seeing these two brilliant women come together and share screen time after the decades spanning story that precedes it sent goose bumps down my entire body. 

Sadly, the film suffers from putting this scene too close to the end. It’s a perfect display of these actors’ brilliance, and a scene I’m sure to watch on YouTube when I’m in need of inspiration, but the film just decides to suddenly wrap up minutes later. Mary’s imprisonment is mentioned in passing to have lasted years, but it feels as if it’s been days, which only further demonstrates this film’s lack of flow. I thoroughly enjoyed this movie, but a lack of cohesion severely burdens what could’ve been something we’d all be talking about during our current awards season. 

YOUR CRITIC:

When he’s not spending an embarrassing amount of hours browsing through Netflix, Jack Dignan dedicates his time to reviewing movies of all genres and languages. He has done so since 2012. He also maintains a website of his own – www.directorscutmovies.com – and ever since their interview, he’s been best friends with Quentin Tarantino. Tarantino just doesn’t know it yet. 

** Images used are courtesy of various sources on Google or direct from the distributor or publisher. Credit has been given to photographers where known – images will be removed on request.