Mary Queen of Scots (adapted from the 2004 biography “Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart” by John Guy) is a successful star vehicle for Saoirse Ronan and a nice showcase for Margot Robbie. As a biography of Mary and a look at the conflict between her, her advisors, the Protestant Church, Queen Elizabeth and her advisors, it is interesting, but nothing special. It is a complex story with plenty of intrigue. However, this type of movie is pretty common, especially at this time of year. What makes this worth seeking out are its powerful performances. The writing and overall production were good enough to keep my attention, but the acting is captivating.
Over the last four years, Saoirse Ronan has become one of my favorite actors. At 24, she has already been nominated for three Oscars (for Atonement, Brooklyn and Lady Bird) in three very different films and has impressed in several others. She consistently takes challenging roles and brings a unique approach to each one. None of her characters feel the same.
Here, what stood out was her forcefulness. Mary is someone who needs to protect herself first and foremost. She reacts in every situation like a Queen fighting for her throne. Considering how irritated many of her subjects seem to be at serving a woman, she is not misguided. Ronan somehow projects both a fierceness and a lonely desire to actually put her trust in another person. She cannot afford to let that vulnerability show, lest it get confused for weakness, though it is always there. While I am sure there are other women who could have played this part well, I am not sure there are many who could have matched Ronan’s intelligence, wit and intensity. It is a tremendously entertaining performance.
Margot Robbie, who was nominated for an Oscar this year for I, Tonya, is equally notable as her rival, Queen Elizabeth I. It is a smaller role, but no less important to the story. Elizabeth sees in Mary the only person who could possibly know what it is like to live her life. The movie is mainly about Mary, but Robbie’s performance is enjoyable in its own right. She gets to play a lot of different emotions. She displays anger, fear, sadness, loneliness and love without turning Elizabeth into a caricature. Playing a Queen is a showy role for an actress and she takes full advantage of it.
Mary Queen of Scots (117 minutes, minus the end credits) is the directorial debut of Josie Rourke. Besides some mild pacing issues, this is a well-made production. There are a few too many scenes of scheming as well as conversations about what the Queens think of each other. Elizabeth spends the whole story in England while Mary spends the majority of it in Scotland. That means they have little screen-time together. Since the heart of the movie lies in their relationship (or lack of one), it suffers a bit from separating its leads for so long. Alas, this is likely a case where life prevented art from being as dramatic as it could have been.
I have no idea how faithful Mary Queen of Scots is to the real people it portrays. A lot of it seems a little too movie-friendly to be entirely true. We go to the cinema primarily to be entertained and that is something it certainly does. It is not great, but it looks great, with wonderful costumes. It also features two talented actresses doing very strong work. While I wish it had gone further in exploring the difficulties of being a woman governing men during an era when women otherwise had almost no power, it is pleasurable enough watching skilled professionals commit to pretty good material.
3¾ out of 5
Saoirse Ronan as Mary Stuart
Margot Robbie as Queen Elizabeth I
Jack Lowden as Lord Dudley
Guy Pearce as William Cecil
James McArdle as James, Earl of Moray
David Tennant as John Knox
Joe Alwyn as Robert Dudley
Ismael Cruz Cordova as David Rizzio
Directed by Josie Rourke
Screenplay by Beau Willimon