FILM REVIEW: Mary Queen of Scots is a Stuffy History Lesson
Mary Queen of Scots is a certain kind of production: well-acted, handsomely photographed, resplendently costumed and mindful of its own importance and gravitas. It’s only flaw is that it is boring.
Why it’s boring is a surprisingly complex question. Maybe it’s that the turgid political narrative unfurls without much emotional weight or conviction. Perhaps it’s that it centres around a battle of wills and wits between two titans (Saoirse Ronan as Mary and Margot Robbie as her cousin and rival, Elizabeth I), who are painted with the broadest of strokes. The only surprise that Robbie’s frightening make-up which grants her the monstrous visage of Ronald McDonald’s demonic sister. The film’s only laughs come in the three scenes of David Tennant as an angry, little Scottish rabble-rouser summoned from God-knows-where when the plot requires a dramatic power shift. I’m fairly sure that it wasn’t meant to be funny. But I had to wring some enjoyment from this thing somehow.
At the heart of this conflict between two royals is the much larger tragedy of the greedy and dishonourable men in their respective courts who spoil their potential to lead and unite their people. Theoretically, this creates an opportunity for juicy intrigue and drama, something writer Beau Willimon excelled at when House of Cards was at its height. But in Mary Queen of Scots, the drama is simplified and obvious and dull and bleugh. It just serves as extra weight on an already sodden and gloomy tale. Which is a weird thing to say because that’s the very point of Mary Queen of Scots.
The contemporary angle of sisterhood and empowerment, despite being so beautifully shot and acted, feels like disingenuous pandering. There is a conversation to be had with regards to films changing historical context for the purposes of plot and theme. But this film is so starchy and old-fashioned, wallowing in so many other period-appropriate tropes, that this particular change feels obvious and hollow. It comes off like a painfully unhip appeal to a generation raised on Katniss Everdeen. A ‘how do you do, fellow kids?’ delivered by a powder-faced monarch in extravagant period dress. And well-intentioned or not, it leaves a real stain on the rest of the film.
I wish I could summon an ounce of enthusiasm for this film: it seems like a lot of effort was put into realising this 400-something year old tale. It is just too bad that it feels every bit its age.
2 Stars out of 5