NOTE: This review contains MAJOR spoilers for the film.
Mary Queen of Scots explores the turbulent life of the charismatic Mary Stuart. Queen of France at 16 and widowed at 18, Mary defies pressure to remarry. Instead, she returns to her native Scotland to reclaim her rightful throne. But Scotland and England fall under the rule of the compelling Elizabeth I. Each young Queen beholds her “sister” in fear and fascination. Rivals in power and in love, and female regents in a masculine world, the two must decide how to play the game of marriage versus independence. Determined to rule as much more than a figurehead, Mary asserts her claim to the English throne, threatening Elizabeth’s sovereignty. Betrayal, rebellion, and conspiracies within each court imperil both thrones – and change the course of history. -Summary from Focus Features
While cannot highly recommend this film, it does have it’s strengths: a very fine cast, enriching music, lush set design, and gorgeous costumes.
The film is a well-intended historical drama that nevertheless falls short of expectations for a couple of reasons: first and foremost, what should be palace drama that raises the hairs on your arms, plays out meekly for much of the movie. Second, the movie’s pacing is too slow… Lastly… the movie tries to set it up as “Mary vs. Elizabeth”, yet then forgets to provide an in-depth charter for Elizabeth.
There is no clarity in why one was either Protestant or Roman would be such an insurmountable issue, partly because John Knox was so poorly written (despite having hidden the very talented and capable David Tennant behind all the hair).
-Excerpts from IMDB reviews
Mary (Saoirse Ronan) and Elizabeth (Margot Robbie) were cousins and BOTH concerned w/ marriage (or avoiding it), as well as children (or succession). Mary ALSO wants the throne of England b/c she is a Stuart; Elizabeth is the (illegitimate to Catholics) daughter of Henry VIII and his 2nd wife, Anne Boleyn. Ronan (NOT yet 25 y.o.) is a FAB actress, thus capable of playing the regal/powerful Mary. The talent is NOT in question; she tries to rise above the (mostly mediocre, sometimes laughable) dialogue. The screenplay is by Beau Willimon (House of Cards) and John Guy, author of the biography- Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart. Many critics/viewers have commented on her Irish accent; it’s VERY noticeable in this film. Why did the director NOT have Ronan modify her accent to reflect Mary!? She could’ve done a Scottish accent or a French one (since Mary grew up in France). Samantha Morton (Elizabeth: The Golden Age) used a Scottish accent.
Ronan has zero chemistry w/ her love interest, Henry Darnley (Jack Lowden- a 28 y.o. from Scotland). Lowden is just TOO much of a lightweight (lacking screen presence, aside from conventional good looks- IF that’s your thing) for the role. Even in the emotional scenes, I was bored by his acting! During MOST of his romantic scenes w/ Ronan, the two desi 20-something gals sitting next to me giggled (perhaps they felt the awkwardness). Though we start out thinking that Mary and Hadley could be happy together, it’s NOT the case. Then the plot veers off the rails- MORE unexpected (and ludicrous) than I ever imagined!
In contrast to Lowden, Joe Alwyn (also in The Favourite opposite Emma Stone) as Elizabeth’s “special friend” Sir Robert Dudley seems a BIT more interesting. He also has V conventional good looks, BUT is brooding and believable. As you may recall, other Dudleys were been played by the powerhouse veteran actor- Jeremy Irons (HBO’s Elizabeth I w/ Helen Mirren)- and the dark/enigmatic Joseph Fiennes (Elizabeth w/ Cate Blanchett). Alwyn and Margot Robbie (who I hadn’t seen before) have a few moments; they relate well to each other. The main question I have: Did Elizabeth really send Dudley to the Scottish court as a (potential) husband for Mary?
Aside from Ronan, I just came away feeling V bad for the (older/experienced) actors; this includes Guy Pierce (Lord Cecil- Elizabeth’s loyal counselor), the FAB at nearly 50 y.o. Adrian Lester (ambassador Lord Randolph), David Tennant (John Knox- anti-Catholic leader), and Brendan Coyle (Earl of Lennox- Darnley’s father). Actually, Pierce does get a FEW nice moments, incl. one scene alone w/ Elizabeth. Lester (best known here in the U.S. for Primary Colors) is a tall/handsome/British theater actor who happens to be black. As in theater world (where director Josie Rourke hails from), this film uses colorblind casting for several supporting and MANY background roles. My good friend thought that was strange; it doesn’t fit w/ the historical period. I’m NOT saying there were zero POC in these royal courts. I wouldn’t have a problem IF there was a basis for it OR if the movie worked well! After all, one of my fave films- Much Ado About Nothing– has Denzel Washington as a Spanish nobleman and Keanu Reeves as his younger brother. Also, Lester has a FAB smile, BUT no smiles here!
It took me a few mins. to recognize Tennant (Doctor Who); he is nearly hidden under a long wig, heavy beard, and dark robe. His character is SO one note- it’s laughable (which is what a few in my audience did); he is TOO good for such a role! There was a LOT of anti-Catholic sentiment in court of Elizabeth (and perhaps also among MANY of the commoners), BUT why make Knox a cartoonish villain!? Even Jordi Molla’s King Phillip II (Elizabeth: The Golden Age) was more nuanced. Coyle (beloved as Mr. Bates in Downton Abbey) doesn’t have much to do, aside from looking disgusted/disappointed (w/ his son) or smirking (as he’s plotting the overthrow of Mary). Sure, it MAY be fun to be a baddie for a change, BUT this is just a waste!
The scenery is quite lovely to look at and the costumes look historically accurate, though FEW students of history objected to the use of black cloth. MOST of the men, incl. the Scottish nobles, wear black. The ladies in waiting to Mary wear black, too. Bess (Gemma Chan from Crazy Rich Asians) as Elizabeth’s confidante/lady-in-waiting wears shades of gray. Where is the tartan cloth which prominent in the Stuart family? The thick makeup and bright red wig worn by Elizabeth in the (pivotal) meeting scene reminded some viewers of a clown. We know that Elizabeth used white powder to cover up her pox scars (after being stricken w/ the disease in her late 20s). As for the action- that’s ALSO a disappointment. The military battle, where Mary’s soldiers face her older half-brother’s men, is more like a small skirmish.
Speaking of the half-brother, the actor has some potential. The men in this film are mostly drunk/useless/jokes or plotting/power-hungry; aside from Dudley and Cecil, none are loyal, thoughtful, or kind-hearted! Even Mary’s long-time ally, Lord Bothwell (Martin Compston), turns against her in the end; this is shocking/sudden. OK, that was a BIT interesting; this actor (who appeared on many TV series, incl. Monarch of the Glen) did well w/ his role. The ladies-in-waiting (incl. Chan) are a physically diverse group; they get almost zero character development. In real life, these were noblewomen who had personalities and lives of their own (aside from attending to their queens). In the eyes of MANY critics, Cate Blanchett is the ultimate Queen Elizabeth. I expected to see a BIT more of Elizabeth; Robbie did a decent job (and her English accent was good). Unless you really LOVE historical fiction, skip this film. Luckily, I saw it for free (w/ my Regal Club points)!