Costume dramas can be a hit and miss affair for many filmmakers. Some of these features get too caught up in the pomp and circumstance, stripping the material of what makes it relatable to most. This can occasionally turn audiences away from very fertile dramatic territory, but in the hands of a good filmmaker, the material can shine. That makes Josie Rourke a special filmmaker, as she navigates the high brow story with a biting precision that makes the material relatable and timely. Along the way, she finds a heart to the relationship between Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan) and Queen Elizabeth (Margot Robbie) that elevates the story to the level it deserves. While the film cannot quite get enough out of the men, the women tower over the production and make Mary Queen of Scots one of the most interesting features of the year.
The story picks up as Mary returns to Scotland after the death of her French husband. She reinstates the free practice of religion within the country, and reaches out to Elizabeth. However, each woman begins to experience resistance from the men in their court. While the men attempt to control each of the monarchs, tensions rise between the kingdoms. This inevitably sets the two for a showdown that will ultimately change the fate of the world.
Ronan and Robbie are the two standouts of the film, and each gets a series of heavy moments over the course of the film. Ronan anchors the film, and does the best she can to carry her segments of the film. The camera is fascinated with her, and you can see Ronan’s true ability to charm and dominate the screen. Her decisiveness comes through, and there’s an anger present when she chooses to expose it. It’s a very tactful performance, and you can feel Ronan giving a performance within the performance as Mary makes the power plays she needs to accomplish her goals. It’s a dynamic performance, and she does a lot to make the film interesting.
Meanwhile, Robbie is straight fire in limited screen time. Donning impressive makeup effects, she pushes through physical ailments to become a brilliant version of the monarch. This version of Elizabeth is not only jealous, but insecure of the threat that Mary poses. This fear is heightened by the council, who disrupts Elizabeth’s ability to trust Mary’s intentions. Robbie plays Elizabeth as emotional and vulnerable. She wishes to do the best for women and for her kingdom, but also constantly scared she will lose her place. It’s a subtle performance when called upon, yet has some big moments opposite Ronan. It is a powerhouse performance, and should be recognized as one of the very best of the year.
Rourke navigates the women’s struggles through some very well handled direction. She elevates the screenplay though shot composition and pacing, helping move along the events of the film. The sprawling story has a lot of ground to cover, and does so by crafting effective visual storytelling. Rourke’s use of lighting with DP John Mathieson gives the world a liveliness and beauty that few have achieved in recent period piece films. The costumes from by Alexandra Byrne are stunning, and add layers to the characters. With Max Richter’s score, moments are punctuated and moments are conveyed with the maximum emotion possible.
There is a scene at the end of the film where the group work perfectly in tandem to deliver some of the most memorable moments of the year. Robbie stands in a courtyard, surrounded by snow as the emotions flow. Meanwhile, Ronan, as confident and headstrong as ever, glides through a hall of men who hate her with the poise and determination of a queen. The scenes are shot brilliantly, and while each actress has little dialogue on screen, the voice-over and music swell to an impressive crescendo. It is a gripping scene of strength that really showcases Rourke’s talent.
Yet, the film undeniably struggles at times. The most frustrating moments revolve around Mary’s court and the actors brought to the forefront. The trio of Martin Compston, Jack Lowden and James McArdle leave little impression on the audience despite having strong characters. This can be blamed on the script from Beau Willimon, who underwrites all these characters with rather disappointing dialogue. You’ll want more out of all three, and none of the three raise the material above what’s on the page.
David Tennant gets another mostly one note character, who seems to just yell and show anger from the beginning to end of the film. As a supporting player, this could have worked, but knowing how talented he can be makes it all the more frustrating. Joe Alwyn actually gets some small moments that really allow him to shine. The court of Gemma Chan, Guy Pearce and Adrian Lester is rather fun to watch, but all feel underserved. Wasting the cast with very small roles is frustrating. Yet it is the weak script that gives them even less to do that ultimately harms the film the most.
While Robbie and Ronan shoot for the stars, the film falls a little short. Rourke showcases moments that show the promise of one of our next great directors. This trio really helps sell the film, and with high production qualities in the score and costume design, there is a lot to appreciate on the screen and through the audio. Yet the movie’s inability to create more than surface level background players, as well as an uneven structure at times, the movie falls below greatness. Still, Mary Queen of Scots proves to be one of the most enjoyable historical films of the past few years.
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