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Film Review: “Mary Queen of Scots” Deserves a Better Fate

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | December 14th, 2018

Film poster: “Mary Queen of Scots”

Mary Queen of Scots (Josie Rourke, 2018) 1 out of 4 stars.

A narrative mess of a film occasionally buoyed by the raw beauty of well-photographed Scottish landscapes, Mary Queen of Scots begins as a sharp examination of the challenges faced by women rulers – even monarchs – in a world controlled by men before devolving into a poorly executed costume drama too enamored of its own pageantry to rise above its production design. Despite an engaging performance from Saoirse Ronan (Lady Bird) as the titular Mary, first-time director Josie Rourke cannot overcome the dramatic inertia of the increasingly lifeless script (by House of Cards‘ Beau Willimon), and so, by the end, we are left with little clue as to why Mary – or her English counterpart Elizabeth, played by the usually (but not here) formidable Margot Robbie (I, Tonya) – mattered. For a movie with a nominally feminist agenda, it does its female characters a disservice by telling their stories so poorly.

It is the second half of the 16th century, and we meet Mary Stuart as she returns to her native Scotland from France, where she has resided since being married off at 15 to the young King François. A fragile man, François dies after only three years with Mary, and so she, a widow at 18, is left queen of her domain, in all ways. Her homecoming is less than trouble-free, however, as both Scotland and England – where her cousin, Elizabeth Tudor, sits on the throne – have just emerged from a period of sectarian bloodshed, with Catholics and Protestants killing each other in the wake of Henry VIII‘s separation from Rome. A nominal peace reigns now, but Mary is a Catholic, herself, and so seen by some as representing a step backwards. Not only that, but she has a valid blood claim to Elizabeth’s crown, as well, giving her enemies in more places than at home. For the rest of the film, she will play a high-risk game of politics, loathed by misogynists and Protestants, alike.

Saoirse Ronan in MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS ©Focus Features

If only the story did as good a job with the execution of the conflict as with its set-up, we’d have a winner. Instead, we quickly become bogged down in the personal lives of courtiers and courtesans, losing focus on what matters. The historical record tells us that Mary was ultimately deposed, took refuge in England – where Elizabeth, despite their rivalry, gave her a place to stay (albeit in prison) – and was then executed in 1587, at age 45, after the discovery of evidence (possibly fabricated or, at least, exaggerated) that she was still plotting to depose Elizabeth. Mary’s son James ultimately became King of England, landing a Stuart (though one converted to Protestantism) on the Tudor throne after all, since Elizabeth left no heir. There’s a lot of material, then, from which to craft an exciting period thriller, but Willimon and Rourke ignore much of it. They add some interesting – if fictionalized – touches, including a racially diverse array of supporting actors, but it’s all in service of a middling soap opera, and so resonates but little. Mary Queen of Scots lost her head, and all she got in return was this lousy biopic? How sad!

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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