Time and again in “Mary Queen of Scots,” we’re bludgeoned over the head with one prevailing message:
Mary Queen of Scots and her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I, might have figured out a way to become friends and could have co-existed in peace and avoided unnecessary rancor and bloodshed if not for the nefarious machinations of so many cruel and stupid and greedy and shortsighted MEN.
Now, I’m not saying there isn’t a large measure of truth in that assertion (in the 16th century time period of the story as well as today), but surely there are more subtle ways to make the point.
“Men are so cruel,” says one prominent female character at one point, after we’ve seen multiple and often bloody examples of their cruelty, to the point where we really don’t need anyone to state the obvious.
This is an impressively staged, highly stylized and fictionalized period piece based on historical events from the late 16th century. The costumes, the set design, the cinematography, the score: all better than good.
But despite the sometimes clever and surely deliberately anachronistic dialogue from the terrific screenwriter Beau Willimon (“The Ides of March,” the Netflix series “House of Cards”), capable direction from Josie Rourke and strong performances from Saoirse Ronan as Mary Stuart and Margot Robbie as Queen Elizabeth, “Mary Queen of Scots” often comes across as stultified and stagnant.
The insurmountable problem: For all but one late and frustratingly artsy scene, Mary is in Scotland and Elizabeth is in England, and their only interaction is through written correspondence and messages delivered by their incompetent and/or untrustworthy emissaries.
So while the fierce and courageous and independent-minded Mary is fighting off male-led challenges to her authority in Scotland, the insecure and indecisive and sickly Elizabeth is in England, constantly asking her unreliable right-hand man, William Cecil (Guy Pearce, rockin’ the wig) for advice and worrying herself half to death about her inability to produce an heir. Their parallel journeys each feel like half a movie — but the movie never really comes together as a whole.
(And in a real stretch, a handsome but comically dopey, cowardly and corrupt cad dupes both of them. Really? They both fell for THAT guy?)
Ronan is one of the best young film actors in the world and she continues her run of remarkable performances as the teenage but already widowed Mary, who returns to Scotland after years in France and takes her rightful place on the throne — with an eye on also claiming her birthright to be Queen of England as well.
In rapid fashion, Mary’s half-brother, the Earl of Moray (James McArdle), and the Protestant leader John Knox (David Tennant), among others, begin plotting and scheming to take down Mary. As the one-dimensional Knox rails against Mary’s “whorish” ways, Mary shows great tolerance, at one point telling a gay man in her court he should never apologize for being true to himself and for loving in the manner in which he was born to love.
Mary clearly rocks. She’s all about peace, love and understanding. Meanwhile, John Knox is screeching to his flock that Scotland is under siege from something “worse than pestilence” — a free-thinking, Catholic woman in charge!
Meanwhile, Margot Robbie continues to remind us she’s about more than classic glamour roles, following her transformation into Tonya Harding by disappearing under prosthetics and makeup to portray Elizabeth, whose visage was deeply scarred after she nearly succumbed to smallpox. Robbie expertly conveys Elizabeth’s fragile ego as Elizabeth (rightly) frets she could be supplanted by Mary, especially after Mary gives birth to a son.
And yet there’s a humanity to Elizabeth, especially when she’s touched by Mary’s desperate but honestly pleas for the two “sisters” to meet up, on their own, without the plotting men around, to see if they can resolve their differences and present themselves to the world as a unified team.
Alas, the (100 percent fictional, but that’s OK because this is a drama, not a documentary) meeting between the two is cloaked in a gauzy haze in more ways than one, and is a tremendous letdown.
Also more than a little problematic: certain characters, including the aforementioned gay courtier and the dashing bounder who seduces Elizabeth and Mary in different ways, undergo radical personality changes and seem to adjust their motives to fit the whims of the story. That lack of consistency makes far too many pivotal plot points seem arbitrary, as if the filmmakers realized, “We have to get things moving!”
‘Mary Queen of Scots’
Focus Features presents a film directed by Josie Rourke and written by Beau Willimon, based on “Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart,” by John Guy. Rated R (for some violence and sexuality). Running time: 125 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.