Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan) returns to her native Scotland from France. She is recently widowed and must now assume the crown of a land that resents her religion and her sex. Entangled in a web of political contrivances she must find allies wherever she can to fight her manifold enemies. But can she depend upon her cousin, Elizabeth I the Queen of England for support or betrayal?
Saoirse Ronan excels in the role of the lonely queen. She’s sympathetic and compelling. The sequences in which she is able to assert authority through cunning or sheer will are all the more powerful for her assured performance. Similarly Margot Robbie is a charmingly tragic character who gradually fades away throughout the film, disappearing into the iconic guise of Elizabeth I.
There is, however, something absent from Mary Queen of Scotts. Some kind of disconnect or lack of authenticity that prevents complete investment in these characters. The moments that really land are those based on the real connections between characters. There’s perhaps just too much time devoted to maneuvering and long stretches of exposition-heavy dialogue.
It is also disappointing to note that Margot Robbie’s Queen Elizabeth is a supporting character, afforded no more screen time than any of the Scottish lords who conspire against Mary. Focusing on these two characters and their shared experiences of ruling their neighboring kingdoms, facing the cruel and senseless disrespect if their male subjects, may have made the film more thematically strong. Certainly the friendship and kinship that is implied to exist between the two queens is one of the strongest and most intriguing aspects of the film.
Nevertheless it is a sumptuous film. The costumes are resplendent, especially Mary’s suits of armour which bespeak an ancient and convincing authority. The gorgeous, verdant, yet cool landscapes of Scotland do well to communicate a sense of the country Mary loves, even if the narrative does not. The Scottish people themselves are absent from the film, except as braying mobs.
Mary Queen of Scotts is a fine film made frustratingly illusive for not know how to focus its narrative. As a tale of two powerful, brilliant women made irrational villains by the prejudices of their times, it’s very effective. One can be forgiven though, for feeling that they have gained no new insight into their character or predicaments.