Movie review: Mary Queen of Scots

A costume drama about rival queens misses the potential drama

Mary Queen of Scots (Marie, královna skotská)
Directed by Josie Rourke
With Saoirse Ronan, Margot Robbie, Jack Lowden, Joe Alwyn, David Tennant, Guy Pearce

One of the potentially great stories of British history falls flat in the latest version of Mary Queen of Scots. The two leads, Saoirse Ronan as the title character and Margot Robbie as England's Queen Elizabeth are compelling, but many of the other aspects of the film fail to ignite.

Another recent costume drama, The Favourite, was also set among royalty, and managed to make the behind the scenes struggle over power between two women fascinating, while also offering some humor, lovely costumes and interesting settings. The story played out like a chess game that had audiences anticipating whether the next move would be checkmate.

The script of Mary Queen of Scots feels more like a greatest hits album, with conflicts over several years between Mary and her fellow Scots, as well as between Mary and Elizabeth and between Catholics and Protestants presented out of context and explained with awkward dialogue to try to fill in the gaps.

People who aren't familiar with the historical tale will likely be confused over Mary's claim to the throne of England, and the dialogue only serves to muddy the waters even more.

The film has Oscar nominations for Best Costumes and for Best Makeup and Hairstyling. While the costumes have an authentic look, the hair and makeup is a big drawback. Martin Compston as the Earl of Bothwell, is a powerful noble in the Scottish court. He appears with long hair swept back over one side of his face and dark mascara around his eyes, looking more like the lead singer of a Norwegian death metal band than a credible historical figure.

Several characters have pasted-on beards, including David Tennant as Protestant leader John Knox and Guy Pearce as Elizabeth's adviser William Cecil. The beards look like something from a TV comedy sketch. Pearce gives an usually stiff performance, trying to be aloof. Tennant plays the Protestant leader like a character from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

The Favourite touched on some LGBT themes and made them central to the plot. In an effort to seem more inclusive, Mary Queen of Scots adds a man to Mary's ladies in waiting. While David Rizzio was a historical figure who was a musician and later secretary to the queen, Ismael Cruz Córdova plays him a stereotypical gay manner that is more of a step back than forward.

Director Josie Rourke said in an interview she did not want to direct an all-white costume drama.

In an effort to add diversity to the cast, Lord Thomas Randolph is played by Adrian Lester, a British actor of Jamaican heritage. Another character, Elizabeth Hardwick, is played by British-Asian actress Gemma Chan. Both are historical figures.

Lester and Chan are very talented, but the director needed to do more to make the colorblind casting work in the context of the story. With efforts at historical realism in the plot, locations and costumes, the casting is rather jarring. It would have worked much better if the film had some more avant garde elements in the settings and camera work, so the casting being treated differently didn't seem so out of place.

Saoirse Ronan plays Mary as being whimsical, torn between having fun and trying to unite England and Scotland under one king. She makes herself easy prey for the foxes all around her.

Margot Robbie creates a more nuanced Elizabeth, trying to put on a stern face while internally struggling with doubt, anxiety and a lack of self-confidence. She increasingly tries to hide behind heavy white makeup, and in the end looks like Tim Curry from the 1990 TV miniseries It.

Director Josie Rourke comes from a theater background, recently working as artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse in London.

The big failing of Mary Queen of Scots is its lack of compelling drama, which a theater director should have been able to deliver. Many of the individual performances are very good, but story is too scattered to draw the audience in.

This is a big disappointment because the film should have been topical. Now that the UK is seeking to leave the EU, and Scotland is questioning its place in the UK, a film about how England and Scotland came together under one monarch could have been an interesting contribution to the debate.

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