Historical dramas aren’t the awards darlings that they used to be. And by “historical,” I don’t mean 12 Years a Slave. I mean suuuuper historical. I mean Braveheart levels of historical. I mean Shakespeare in Love. I mean Elizabeth. And if you’re movie savvy, you’ll know that all those titles came out in the ’90s. Since then, the only Best Picture nominee to come remotely close to the 16th Century is this year’s The Favourite, which is set in the 18th. And if I’m being honest, I was really pegging this one to change all that when the first promotional material dropped last summer, delivering a captivating medieval war film that garnered hardware on all fronts, especially from the two leads. Cut to six months later and Mary Queen of Scots has been shut out of every major category save for the obligatory Costume Design and Hairstyling/Makeup. And while it wasn’t the historical epic I thought it would be, captivating it was regardless, leaving me to scratch my head at what is deemed noteworthy – ahem Bohemian Rhapsody ahem – and what is not. Alone, the performances of Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie are transcendent enough to push this period piece past the realm of just decent. I will acknowledge that some second act subplot juggling kept me from keeping a firm grasp on the direction of the plot, but it more than course-corrected by the time its climactic confrontation came to pass. All in all, this is simply a very well acted, well produced stage production put to film, leaving little else to be desired.
Set in mid 16th Century Great Britain, the Catholic Queen Mary (Saoirse Ronan) returns to Scotland following the death of her husband to assume leadership. Elsewhere, her Protestant cousin Elizabeth (Margot Robbie) is the Queen of England, who, unwed and without an heir, fears Mary’s greater claim to the throne. While their correspondence begins amicably and with pure intentions, both begin to realize that there are forces outside of their control that see to pit one against the other. For instance, Protestant cleric John Knox (David Tennant) immediately decries Mary’s sovereignty and sees to stir the masses in an effort to unseat her. Elizabeth attempts to arrange for Mary to wed an Englishman as a way of lessening her claim, to which Mary accepts by accepting the proposal of Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden), on the condition she be named Elizabeth’s successor. When this results in Mary’s pregnancy, Mary proudly proclaims the child to be an heir to both England and Scotland. This further fans the flames in both kingdoms, ensuring that the two nations’ peace cannot be sustained under their respective monarchies.
Period dramas can often be difficult to follow, especially when the English featured is of the olden variety. Yet, I didn’t exactly have that problem here. I was expecting it, sure, it being set just before the time Shakespeare was kicking, but character motivations and desires are so well conveyed that it might as well have been a silent film and I would still know what was going on. Where it did lose me, however, was somewhere in the second act, where character statuses and allegiances shifted so much within the span of fifteen minutes I felt like I was watching an adaptation of musical chairs. And yeah, this is a biographical movie, so you can’t exactly ding history for not aligning itself with proper story structure, but there was some fat that could have been trimmed. While it never feels its length – and let’s face it, it could have with a project like this – there are a few subsidiary characters that I could have done without and still gotten the same experience, thus thinning out that meaty middle section that I couldn’t relate to you if I tried. Aside form that though, they do a pretty good job at making you feel the stakes and tension in a story that was otherwise marketed as having more.
A big selling point for the film though was the pairing of Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie in such heavy roles, both hot off their Best Actress nominations for Lady Bird and I, Tonya, respectively. As if it was ever in doubt, both are rock-solid portraying two opposing monarchs who probably have more in common than the differences things that distance them, even though they share extremely minimal screen time. While Ronan is the clear lead of the film, I have to give major props to Robbie for being able to command every scene she’s in, warts and all. It’s a shame that these two rockstars were largely overlooked this awards season, seeing as they’ve seldom been better and give the film the kind of A-list talent it needs leading the pack. That said, there were a couple of times when I would have liked the rest of the cast to be unrecognizable backup players so as not to steal the focus. While I take nothing away from the estimable talents of David Tennant and Guy Pearce, once you realize it’s them underneath those beards, the film loses that sense of plausibility that the leads so staunchly built up. While plenty of actors love to go old English with their roles from time to time, oftentimes sojourning to the theatre scene, seeing a couple of faces such as theirs in a production that I normally wouldn’t took me out of the story. They may have held their own acting-wise, but sometimes casting matters.
Speaking of the theatre, Mary Queen of Scots was helmed by longtime theatrical director Josie Rourke, who made her filmic debut with this one. It’s a wholly different medium, surely, and a transition that I couldn’t even fathom would be simple, but Rourke’s involvement makes a great deal of sense and the benefits show. In last week’s review of Mary Poppins Returns, I explained why the film’s reliance on theatre acting and presentation not only improved the performance of Emily Blunt’s but the movie on the whole. So often do “theatre movies” – for lack of a better term – try to have the best of both worlds, and we end up with a mishmash like Les Misérables that doesn’t know whether to commit to one or the other. But there’s nothing inherently wrong with simply filming theatre, as little of the intensity is lost even though it technically shifts mediums. And that’s what Mary Queen of Scots is, theatre put to film. By simply relying on its strengths as a more theatrically inclined story, the film is deftly able to capture the kind of raw emotions and performances befitting that of the stage. So if you were hoping for something with more grandiose action á la Braveheart, you might just want to skip this one. But if you like yourself some Shakespeare with just a dash of Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie, this’ll be for you.
Final Score: 8/10