Scotland, 1561. Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan) returns from exile in France to assume the throne of Scotland. However, her power is challenged by both family and enemies within her own borders – all while rival and admirer Queen Elizabeth (Margot Robbie) awaits the opportunity to depose her.
From day one the appeal of Mary Queen of Scots centred on the chemistry of the leading ladies Ronan and Robbie. An entire marketing campaign was built around the pair shoulder to shoulder, colliding over the fate of their kingdoms. But despite all the hype, the two share one solitary scene together near the finale. The audience’s expectations hinged on the two sparking in front of the camera, meaning this one was never going to do enough to lift Mary… above average. The scene itself, with the queens sniping at each other while wandering through… washing or something, has a very local-theatre-Shakespeare flourish. There’s nothing wrong with thespian influences in your period drama, of course. However, with another recent historical film (The Favourite) taking a battle for royal power to a compelling and unique place, Mary… ultimately seems safe and pedestrian in comparison.
Part of this problem is pacing. At just over two hours’ long it’s not too flabby, but there just didn’t seem to be enough intrigue for the viewer to stay tuned in. Much of the first 45 minutes were spent with Mary’s entourage of giggling handmaidens – not inspiring viewing. We see from day one that her impulsive behaviour and stubborn streak creates more enemies than supporters in her court, but it takes around an hour for anyone to make a move, north or south of the border. We also see little of Elizabeth in this time. With her involvement with Mary’s fate waning as time goes on, and therefore her involvement in the story, this was the perfect chance to entrench Elizabeth as an imposing admirer. But instead the film begins a pattern of exciting violence and run-of-the-mill dramatic dialogue. Unable to draw energy from Ronan and Robbie playing off each other, the other characters don’t quite have what it takes to carry the film.
Despite the script problems, Ronan puts in an amazing performance. One of the fastest rising talents in Hollywood, Ronan’s Mary is naïve, childish, and sharp-tongued – but she’s also clever and strong-willed. Ronan does the queen historical justice, which is more than you can often say in a genre that strives for clearly demarcated heroes and villains. Guy Pearce and David Tennant do well as support, bringing elements of political intrigue and wild-eyed fervour respectively. These characters play a lot to the religious elements of the story – Mary… must be given credit for not shying away from this, which could have been buried in favour of further human drama. Many of the other supporting characters fail to add further flavour to the story, however. Mary and Elizabeth’s respective suitors, Henry Darnley (Jack Lowden) and Lord Dudley (Joe Alwyn), are dull to the point of background dressing. This is normally a complaint of female characters in period dramas – if flipping the script on the genre was the idea, success didn’t improve the film. And finally, Elizabeth. The makeup was amazing, the dresses spectacular – but Robbie simply didn’t have enough screen time to work her magic and take Mary… into award-worthy territory.
Ronan delivers a tour de force as the impulsive Queen Mary, but Robbie’s potential is lost in a lengthy script and ponderous pacing. 6/10.