Mary Queen of Scots (2018)
Dir. Josie Rourke; Saoirse Ronan, Margot Robbie
[2.5 out of 4 stars]
The story of Mary Queen of Scots and Queen Elizabeth I of England is certainly one we’ve heard before, in Mary of Scotland (1936), Elizabeth (1998), and Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007), among others. The most recent installment, however, is unique in that it portrays the queens’ story through their eyes, rather than focusing on the lives of the men around them, as history often does. Kings are secondary in Mary Queen of Scots (2018), important only in their ability to procure an heir for their queens. Josie Rourke’s film delves into the unique relationship between the two women: they correspond, send each other paintings of themselves, and refer to each other as “sister.” At the same time, they also distrust one another and are concerned about the other’s place on her throne. While the premise of the film is promising, Mary Queen of Scots falls short in creating a complex, compelling women to spearhead the narrative.
The film follows Mary (Saoirse Ronan), the Catholic queen of Scotland, as she returns to her country in 1561 to resume the throne after the death of her husband. Nearby in England, Protestant Queen Elizabeth (Margot Robbie) reigns. The two correspond via letters, and Mary writes that she hopes there can be a “treaty of two queens” between them. Yet Elizabeth feels threatened by Mary’s claim to Elizabeth’s throne; she sends an Englishman for Mary to wed so that she can be sure he will remain loyal to Elizabeth. Mary refuses, so Elizabeth sends Lord Darnley (Joe Alwyn) instead, whom she accepts. Mary’s court is suspicious of him, but she insists upon marriage, leading her half-brother, the Earl of Moray (James McArdle), to leave and incite a rebellion against her. After their wedding, Mary discovers her husband in bed with her close friend, David Rizzio (Ismael Cruz Córdova) and insists that her husband give her a child. Meanwhile, rumors about Mary’s supposed adultery spread, with some wondering if Rizzio is the father of her child; her subjects become disillusioned, and we all know how the story ends.
Mary Queen of Scots attempts to tell the story of Queens Mary and Elizabeth through their points of view by emphasizing their personal relationship. Doing so successfully would require creating compelling, three-dimensional protagonists, and the film’s greatest pitfall is that it fails to do so. Perhaps Rourke assumed that everyone knows the background of the story so any buildup or background about the characters is unnecessary. But both queens come off as one-dimensional, and I didn’t find myself empathizing with either one of them, although I suspect Rourke intended her viewers to feel for both women. Mary is determined and “formidable,” as one character calls her, singularly focused on ruling both Scotland and England. When Lord Darnley asks her “Do you love me?” she simply replies “You have given me an heir to two thrones. That is worth more than love.” She rarely smiles; her gaze is stern; her resolve firm. Much of the plot centers on her attempts to take Elizabeth’s throne. But we never learn why she is so fixated on this goal or glimpse any other aspect of her personality. Meanwhile, Elizabeth holds her own against her male court, but she is simultaneously anxious about Mary’s threat to her throne and the fact that she has produced no heir. She is older than Mary and pockmarked by smallpox scars; while Mary wears nearly no makeup, Elizabeth hides behind a mask of white makeup and a bright red wig to appear powerful. Neither of them was well-rounded enough a character for me to really root for them; neither displays the complexity that these real-life women had, so they seem unrealistic. I would have preferred if Rourke had spent more time developing other aspects of these characters’ personalities as well as their thirst for power.
The screenplay does not help matters and tends towards dramatic, resounding one-liners meant to inspire the audience to cheer. For instance, as Mary rides with her army to quash the rebellion, she solemnly asks Darnley “Are you afraid, Henry?” When he says no, she replies, “Good. Because our swords are not for show.” Since the entire film is sprinkled with such lines, their impact is lessened. There were so many small victories, it seems, that none was particularly noteworthy. In a letter to Elizabeth, Mary writes that “ruling side by side, we must do so in harmony, not through a treaty drafted by men lesser than ourselves.” Men in both queens’ courts, lament, saying “Wise men servicing the whims of women… How did the world come to this?” These are modern feminist one-liners meant for a 2018 audience, often spoken in a resounding, forceful voice. Yet having characters speak only in this way seems unrealistic. It would have been better to decrease the frequency of such lines and write in a more casual tone.
The over-dramatization continues with the score, which favors strong violins and foreboding drum rolls. With this music, each scene seems like the culmination of some great battle, every moment the film’s climax. Such a score is useful at certain points to emphasize the gravity of a moment or build to the excitement of a battle, but it is often unnecessary and distracting, creating drama where there need not be any. For example, when Mary and Elizabeth finally meet, the encounter is tense and multifaceted, easily carried by Ronan’s and Robbie’s acting prowess. Yet, as they debate, dramatic violin music swells in the background. It detracts from what is, in my opinion, truly the culmination: the meeting of the two queens.
Ronan and Robbie are both incredible and manage to create some meaning amidst a lackluster script. Ronan rules every room she enters with her scornful gaze, looking upon anyone who doubts her as if they were two inches tall. She tailors each biting remark to the context of the scene, mixing caustic anger with determination and arrogance, and delivers an effective performance. Much of her acting is conveyed through her eyes, and she looks at most of the men surrounding her with such hatred and rage. Robbie’s performance is more subdued but nonetheless powerful. Her Elizabeth is no longer as virilic as Mary is, so she must contend with not only aging, and a nasty case of smallpox, but also growing discontent among her court given her apparent inability to produce an heir. Robbie alternates moments of utter power and confidence with quiet, personal moments of longing. When she is dressed in her luscious gowns, fully made up with white skin and red lips, her withering gazes rival Ronan’s, and she looks the very picture of queenliness. Yet internally she struggles with her failure to produce an heir, at one point quietly gathering her skirts around her midsection to create the illusion of pregnancy on her shadow. When she finally meets her so-called “sister,” she is anxious, lips quivering, eyes darting, while still attempting to visibly assert her power.
In addition to the acting, there are other good things about Mary Queen of Scots. For instance, its costume design, makeup and hairstyling are all elegant and beautiful, creating a rich, colorful experience. Its concentration on these two queens, rather than their ex-husbands or other kings, is novel and interesting, and the film is headed by two strong female characters. But by making its titular character and her sister flat and superficial, it becomes lackluster. Perhaps it’s a problem of trying to cover too much time; nearly three decades have passed by the film’s conclusion. Even with so much material to cover, there are moments where the plot seems to limp along, and even two stellar leading performers cannot salvage it.