The story of the rivalry between Mary Stuart, the Catholic ruler of Scotland, and Elizabeth I, the Protestant queen of England, is a complex and enthralling one concerning power, religion, and womanhood in the 16th century. When those themes show up onscreen in MARY, QUEEN OF SCOTS, the film feels immediate and important. Unfortunately, too much time is spent on luridness which gives this historical drama a feeling more akin to the naughty Showtime series THE TUDORS. The movie shines when the two formidable women battle each other but falters when the material careens into sweaty pulp.
Sexuality did play a large part in the dynamics between Mary (Saoirse Ronan) and Elizabeth (Margot Robbie), and often throughout, director Josie Rourke and screenwriter Beau Willimon present that important topic with noble accuracy. Elizabeth’s struggle with smallpox is writ large, tragically marring her physical health, feminine appearance, and sense of self-worth. Mary’s porcelain beauty is dwelled upon too, particularly in how the kingdom valued such beauty far and wide. The film also delves into their sexual history and how it affected their reputations and ability to rule. At such times, MARY, QUEEN OF SCOTS serves as an astute reminder that sexism and discrimination towards women have been around for centuries and echoes the struggle of women in the corridors of power today.
Still, the film glosses over too many key historical events that would allow for a fuller picture of the two central figures and their plight as women to move up the food chain. By giving facts short-shrift, Mary’s strident insistence on serving no master, including her ‘inferior’ Elizabeth, comes off more like the whining of a petulant teen than a very righteous and shrewd claim to her birthright. Additionally, how Elizabeth herself came to the throne, and all of the controversy surrounding it, is given almost no discussion at all here. If you don’t know about how her father King Henry VIII threw all of Europe into chaos by rejecting Catholic dogma when he started his own church, then you’ll be lost in this outing. The film gives precious little context to the warring tribes of Catholics and Protestants. It’s a shame because the religious politics surrounding Mary and Elizabeth were as potent as the sexual ones. Instead, the sexuality that the film plumbs are the details of Mary’s bedroom.
Her arranged marriage to Lord Henry Darnley (Jack Lowden) that took place to curry favor with Elizabeth and the whole of Mother England plays out as a B story on a daytime soap. Rather than mine the politics of it all, the film spends oodles of time dwelling on Darnley’s sexual proclivities and peccadilloes. He introduces Mary to cunnilingus during one lengthy scene, and his adulterous affair with courtesan David Rizzio (Ismael Cruz Cordova) not only makes fun of him swinging both ways but takes the time to linger luridly on both men’s backsides. You’d think that Darnley was nothing but a drunkard and ne’er-do-well from the way he’s presented here and it’s both a disservice to history and good storytelling.
The real shame of the film is that there is more than enough inherent drama for it to explore in the history of the two women, but it chooses not to again and again. It all but ignores key facts, like the influence of living in France since childhood on Mary’s accent. Why isn’t she speaking with more of a French influence here, given her marriage to the nation’s ruler? (For that matter, if the film was going to give Mary a thick Scottish brogue why wasn’t a vocal coach more successful in steering Ronan away from her natural Irish one?)
Additionally, the film ignores the marriage of Mary to James Hepburn after Darnley’s death. It barely scratches the surface on her lengthy incarceration and fails to focus on the Ridolfi Plot and the use of published casket letters to discredit her nationwide and fall out of favor with Elizabeth. Instead, the film would rather explore the excessive details of Mary’s menstruation and bloody childbirth.
Despite being sold as a two-hander, Robbie’s Elizabeth gets far less screen time and remains too enigmatic throughout. We get to know her advisors William Cecil (Guy Pearce) and Lord Randolph (Adrian Lester) far better. Most of Elizabeth’s character seems to be rooted in her elaborate wigs and costumes, and at times, Robbie seems consumed by them. Ronan manages better, outside of her struggle with accents, but her Mary remains too unknown. And despite all of the feminist leanings, the core group of five ladies in waiting for Mary is barely given any dialogue or personality. Racial diversity amongst them does not substitute for well-written characters.
The film cannot get its priorities straight, even when showcasing an important war scene. The battle looks small, with not enough extras cast, and it comes off as inert and puny. Mary’s orgasms and curiosity about the male penis get far more attention. Elizabeth’s blemishes and acne scars on view garner more focus too than any of her genuine cunning displayed as queen. Worst of all is the scene where Mary’s traitorous court men stab one of her allies to death in a scene that Eli Roth could’ve shot with its excess of blood and lingering death. Was this film sold as a GAME OF THRONES style epic, only with a real Cersi and Dany at the center? It seems so, given by how much melodrama and salaciousness is mined for two hours.
One could quibble about the fact that the two rulers never met in real life, but if your climax is going to have them do so, don’t mar it by having them fighting the scenery as it gets in their way. As the two women circle each other, expressing both threats and fears, what looks like hung laundry distracts from their confrontation. It’s used as a ploy by Elizabeth to hide her afflictions, but it adds more nuisance than nuance. Too many of the sumptuous costumes and elaborate sets eclipse the characters throughout in a similar vein.
Following the release date of THE FAVOURITE by a few weeks is perhaps the unkindest of blows to MARY, QUEEN OF SCOTS. The comparisons to a better executed period piece with similar themes will not be lost on audiences. It’s a shame because the story of Mary and Elizabeth is continually fascinating, worthy of umpteen retellings. This one should’ve been more successful, but instead, the filmmakers went for the trivial rather than giving these two historical figures the royal treatment they deserved.