Near the start of Mary Queen of Scots, Mary (Saoirse Ronan) arrives in Scotland from France in a rowing boat, having spent who knows how many hours or days at sea. Nevertheless, with her spotless haute couture dress and her magnificent hair-do in the shape of a table tennis bat, she looks as if she has just stepped out of a limousine on her way to the Met Gala. It’s that type of film. Mary’s four ladies-in-waiting – all named Mary, not that the script mentions this – are always ready for a magazine cover-shoot. Most of the men dress in matching black leather jerkins like The X-Men. Mary’s half-brother (James McArdle), goes heavy on the eyeshadow. And John Knox (David Tennant) has a vast beard and double-decker flat cap, as if Tennant were trying to prove that he, rather than Jude Law, should have been cast as the young Albus Dumbledore.
- Four stars for Van Gogh biopic
- Review: Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald
- Film review: If Beale Street Could Talk
It’s all very fashion-forward, but the effect of this show-offy modern styling is to make a silly film even sillier. A British period drama starring two Oscar nominees as two 16th Century monarchs, Mary Queen of Scots is the sort of prestige production that usually does well during awards season. But this flashily tailored shambles won’t win much except in the hair, make-up and costume categories.
It looks suspiciously like the producers didn’t have the budget for crowd scenes, perhaps because they had spent so much on hairspray
Directed by theatre veteran Josie Rourke, and scripted by Beau Willimon, one of the writers of the US remake of House of Cards, it’s set in the late 1500s, when England is ruled by Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie). Her cousin Mary Stuart has been living in France, but she returns to Scotland at the age of 18 to reclaim the Scottish throne. The trouble is that Mary is Catholic, and so the Protestant Elizabeth is worried that she might claim the English throne, too. As an opening caption announces: “Her very existence threatens Elizabeth’s power”.
What Mary Queen of Scots fails to establish is why we should care about any of this 400-odd years later. It doesn’t even ask if Mary actually wants to be the queen of England, or whether her accession would be a good or bad thing. Presumably, the British people must have an opinion on the matter, but most of the film is set within the walls of Mary and Elizabeth’s gloomy palaces (Mary’s rocky grotto in Edinburgh seems to have been modelled on the Batcave), so we hardly ever glimpse anyone who isn’t an aristocrat. Maybe O’Rourke wanted to show how cut off the rulers are from their loyal and not-so loyal subjects, but it looks suspiciously like the producers didn’t have the budget for crowd scenes, perhaps because they had spent so much on hairspray.
Another problem is that the two queens meet just once – a summit that was invented for the film – but otherwise they are hundreds of miles apart, and so their conflict, such as it is, consists of sending various envoys back and forth across the border. Their negotiations go something like this. First Elizabeth demands that Mary marry an English lord. Then Mary agrees to marry an English lord. And then Elizabeth says that, no, she didn’t mean that English lord, she meant a different English lord. And so it goes, on and on, with brief interludes in which the queens discuss their sex lives with their suitors and servants. The editors try to speed things up by chopping scenes into snippets, and cutting between Scotland and England at whiplash-inducing speed, but this doesn’t stop the film being dull. It just makes it dull and messy.
The actors do their considerable best. Ronan, who was cast in the role six years ago, speaks half of her dialogue in French and the other half in English, with a perfect Scottish accent. (Surprising, really, considering that Mary spent so little of her childhood in Scotland.) She also makes use of that piercing, aquiline stare of hers, which makes everything she says sound more intelligent than it is. But even Ronan can’t save over-written dialogue that includes such tongue-twisters as, “If God wills Mary to marry, Mary will marry only whom Mary wills to marry.”
Robbie has a lot less to do. The screenplay suggests that sisterly co-operation is being sabotaged by male aggression, but this feminist theme – developed far more compellingly in Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite – is undermined by the portrayal of Elizabeth as a pathetic madwoman who sits around making flowers out of ribbons and lamenting that she never had children. And you have to ask how wise it was to cast someone as gorgeous as Robbie to play a character who is miserably jealous of someone else’s beauty. Even when Elizabeth has the pox, and Robbie has Rice Krispies stuck all over the face, she is still, unmistakably, a movie star.
If Mary Queen of Scots is not a complete waste of time, it’s because its heroine’s story is grimly fascinating, however haphazardly it may be told. The film barely acknowledges her years of house arrest, or her involvement with the Babington Plot to assassinate Elizabeth, but it does have as many betrayals, marriages and murders as a season of Game of Thrones.
There’s something to be said for the project’s sheer eccentricity, too. For instance, its royal courts are astoundingly multi-racial for 16th Century Britain, and David Rizzio (Ismael Cruz Córdova), Mary’s secretary and rumoured lover, comes out as transgender. (“Be whoever you wish,” the woke queen reassures him. “You make a lovely sister.”) Perhaps the most bizarre aspect of Mary Queen of Scots, though, is Guy Pearce’s performance. Playing Elizabeth’s faithful right-hand man, William Cecil, Pearce takes the opportunity to showcase his faultless David Attenborough impersonation. He keeps saying things like, “Mary is our foe – we can never bow to her!” But his velvety whisper and careful enunciation are so close to those of television’s greatest naturalist that he might as well be saying, “The lioness approaches slowly and silently, careful not to startle the resting warthog.” The film would have made just as much sense if he had.
Love film? Join BBC Culture Film Club on Facebook, a community for film fanatics all over the world.
If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.
And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called “If You Only Read 6 Things This Week”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Capital and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.