“The Favourite” took the historical monarchy storyline and put a modern, darkly comedic spin on it. “Mary Queen of Scots” is much more straightforward, traditional and dramatic. And once again, strong women take centerstage.
Saoirse Ronan plays Mary, who began her rule of Scotland when she was just 6 days old. She was married at 15, but by 18 became widowed. As the film begins, it’s the early 1560s. The Catholic Mary has returned to Scotland from France. Her counsel is pressuring her to find a new husband, so together they can produce the next heir to the throne.
This is a concept Mary’s cousin, England’s Queen Elizabeth, is not at all interested in. Elizabeth (Margot Robbie) doesn’t want a husband or a child interfering with her political rule. She already considers herself to be the man of the household of Great Britain, under Protestant rule.
If historical dramas about kings, queens, politics, religious division, war, murder, sibling backstabbing, romance, heirs, power struggles and betrayal are your thing (aka you’re obsessed with HBO’s “Game of Thrones”), you’ll likely be enthralled with “Mary Queen of Scots”. If not, then it will be a bit of a tedious experience.
I’m in the second category. The script is cyclical and repetitive, lacking powerful and “epic” elements, other than wide landscape shots of the Scottish (actually Irish) and English hillsides. A subplot involving a relationship between Mary and one of her ladies in waiting (who happens to be a gay man) provides the most depth. In fact, many of the themes in “Mary Queen of Scots”” are quite contemporary, including women trying to overcome the dominance of men.
“MQOS” does have some standout technical elements, including the Critics Choice nominated costumes and makeup & hairstyling. The latter particularly applies to Robbie, who has earned a Screen Actors Guild Award Best Supporting Actress nomination for this performance. She’s good, but has less than half the screen time that Ronan does. If not for a climactic showcase scene, Robbie’s nom would have been unjustified.
Three-time Oscar nominee Ronan is believable as the over-confident, mildly sinister ruler. Director Josie Rourke makes it a goal to remind us that Mary was just 18 years old when all of this was happening. She loves being around her friends, talking about boys, and just having fun.
But, amidst all the chaos, can she keep a good head on her shoulders? Not likely.