Aren’t all period pieces important when it involves someone who’s well-known and has established in history textbooks ever since? It might depend on who cares about political struggles, I guess. Mary Queen of Scots might’ve been perfect for those wanting to see this story be told on the big screen, but having that a special on television would’ve suited better if it weren’t for its two leads.
What’s the Story: Based on John Guy’s book, Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan), widow of the King of France, returns to Scotland, reclaims her rightful throne and menaces the future of Queen Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie) as ruler of England, because she has a legitimate claim to the English throne. Betrayals, rebellions, conspiracies and their own life choices imperil both Queens. They experience the bitter cost of power, until their tragic fate is finally fulfilled.
This marks British director Josie Rourke’s film debut, as she’s primarily known for directing theater productions since 2000, and she’s working with a screenplay that’s written by House of Cards creator Beau Willimon. While I don’t find myself being fond of many period pieces, Mary Queen of Scots had me intrigued just because Ronan and Robbie are starring in it. These two are some of my favorite actresses working today, and both of them actually went up against each other for Best Actress in 2018 for Lady Bird and I, Tonya, respectively. Though they lost, it was still exciting to see them together for a historical drama like this. Most people may find this extraordinary piece of filmmaking, but for me, I guess the movie underwhelmed me, even though it took me a year to finally check this out.
The selling point throughout all of this movie is watching Ronan and Robbie giving it their all. Don’t get your hopes up if you think they will share any scenes together. It’s true that they only have one scene with each other until the third act, where it’s arguably the best part of the entire movie and takes a long time to get to that point. This is absolutely Ronan’s movie, and coming from someone who’s not familiar with her portrayal of the character, the range she gave is outstanding. Robbie doesn’t have the same amount of screen time her co-star has, and she is most-definitely a supporting character. But her portrayal as Queen Elizabeth I was great, and this is a role that has been played before whether it’s Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth and its sequel or Judi Dench for her 15-minute appearance in Shakespeare in Love that somehow won an Oscar.
Besides those two being in charge of bringing the momentum, this also has Guy Pearce as William Cecil, a wasted Gemma Chan as Bess of Hardwick, Jack Lowden as Mary’s second husband Henry Darnley, and David Tennant, who I didn’t realize it was him after him being on screen for a full minute.
From a production standpoint, I’m glad to say that was an aspect that was better than I expected. I will always be a sucker for paying attention to how everything looks. I gotta give a ton of credit to costume design and the hair and makeup department. It’s put to use well when it comes to Robbie, and I can now see why it got the nomination, especially when Queen Elizabeth contracts smallpox.
My main problem with Mary Queen of Scots is that I wasn’t nearly invested with what the story was offering in its entire two-hour runtime. Willimon’s screenplay has a ton of things happening to the point of seeing the relationship between Mary and Elizabeth emotionally hollow. It also centers on politics around the period of bringing power back into England and Scotland. Or something or whatever. Because of that, it comes boring when you don’t completely understand the conflicts that are surrounding both characters. Rourke behind the camera clearly knows how to helm something from a historical perspective, given her theater background, and yet, it’s just characters talking in conversations in every scene with no the best dialogue to listen to. There’s also one action scene that was engaging enough to boost a little excitement.
Since this is coming from someone who isn’t a history buff, I can honestly see there will be those who will pinpoint the inaccurate moments or have read Guy’s book Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart. For me, it didn’t matter. When this originally came out, this was being released around the same time as another period piece film, The Favourite. Honestly, I adore that movie more so than this because it handled better the effort of containing a fascinating story and much better performances. I was wondering why I didn’t re-watch that instead. Personally, this would’ve been better as a play in London rather than a full-length movie that some will not be on board with.
In the end, Mary Queen of Scots didn’t leave me wanting more since I wasn’t expecting a lot out of this. From my perspective and probably everyone else’s, this just appeared as a typical period piece drama that has all the elements needed to make it work, and it barely reached it. There’s no denying that the performances from Ronan and Robbie are fantastic and that praise should also allude to the brilliant costumes and makeup, but that still doesn’t brighten the movie’s horizon into being a memorable one. Just a one and done movie.