Film Review: ‘Mary Queen Of Scots’ Coasts on Great Performances and an Epic History

Starring Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie, MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS is a smart and well-acted period drama that would probably be better off as a miniseries.

So many great TV series that have been coming out over the last few years have frequently been compared to “X-hour long movies.” Telling a continuous story and designed for binge-watching, shows like Game of Thrones or Twin Peaks or Big Little Lies are frequently given this comparison. It is often used as a way for filmmakers working on TV to feel cinematic, though I’ve found this often undermines the work that goes into a series. Yet I couldn’t help but think about this formula in reverse while watching Mary Queen of Scots: wouldn’t this work better as an eight-episode miniseries instead of a breezy and overstuffed two-hour movie?

Saoirse Ronan and Jack Lowden in Mary Queen of Scots

It is a strange problem for a movie like Mary Queen of Scots to have considering it comes from Beau Willimon, the prolific creator of House of Cards and other TV series. And the movie feels episodic at times, tracing the titular Mary through a number of years of her very complex life, from her arrival in her home of Scotland at the age of 18 to become queen through to her eventual beheading at her cousin Queen Elizabeth I’s hand. Every fifteen minutes contains another issue that is resolved quickly, giving plotlines little breathing room. Characters are introduced and dispatched constantly, the result of actual history mixing with breakneck pacing. There are even act breaks, where one could totally see an episode splitting.

Rourke is incredibly capable for a director coming out of the stage. The first time filmmaker has a steady hand and her background in work for the stage in London shows. Influences of Shakespeare run through both the script and direction, with visual references and character beats feeling like events out of Macbeth, Richard III, and Julius Caesar, among others. In particular, Rourke seems to have borrowed her love of lush cinematography and complex staging from Shakespeare adaptations like Throne of Blood or Welles’s Chimes at Midnight, but putting a decidedly feminine spin on the Shakespearean stories.

Margot Robbie as Elizabeth I in Mary Queen of Scots

Mary Queen of Scots seems to have learned from the mistakes of other classic Elizabethan films, as the movie allows for a more racially sensitive and inclusive atmosphere, one that also allows for women to be as flawed as the men without turning them into villains. Much of that is the result of Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie delivering tour-de-force performances as Mary and Elizabeth I respectively, though Ronan is the only true lead of this movie. Advertisements oversold the size of what Robbie does here as Elizabeth, including some of her few moments. It also telegraphs what might be the best scene in the film, a sole (if factually inaccurate) confrontation between Mary and Elizabeth that lets each actress explode with energy. While Ronan (and some of the other heavily Scottish-accented actors) may at times need subtitles to be understood, they still sell much of the movie through their mastering of power. You will believe that Ronan is a queen, even if her words are lost beneath the thick voice.

The performances and filmmaking redeem the film mostly, as does the score from the brilliant Max Richter. But a number of awkward storytelling choices (including two scenes that play at being full-on rape sequences as well as some strangely homophobic tropes for the gay characters) at times hinder the otherwise delightful film. But with Ronan and Robbie each doing their typically exceptional work and with Josie Rourke bursting onto the filmmaking scene, even the worst instincts of the movie are fantastic. I just would have been happier watching another six hours that allowed the story to better develop.

Mary Queen of Scots premieres in select theaters on December 7th before expanding nationwide. It stars Saoirse Ronan, Margot Robbie, Joe Alwyn, Jack Lowden, and David Tennent. Directed by Josie Rourke.

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