Review: ‘Mary Queen of Scots’ — How not to do drama

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Margot Robbie as Elizabeth in ‘Mary Queen of Scots.’ — video still

Mary Queen of Scots is not the type of film I typically enjoy. It’s hard for me to get excited for period pieces, because I’m not a history buff, and I’m never sure if I’m going to understand or appreciate what’s going on. I wanted to see this, though, because I’m a massive fan of Margot Robbie (I, Tonya), and because I was curious whether it would create a captivating story even for a viewer like me. The answer? Well, kind of.

The film follows Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan), Queen Elizabeth I (Robbie) and their rivalry over love and power. Mary returns from France to her native home in Scotland to reclaim the throne, but Elizabeth rules over both England and Scotland. The movie focuses on the two as they navigate how to be leaders in a masculine world. Along the way, they each go through trials that test their relationships with others in their orbit.

At first glance this really is a very simple story. But oh boy do they try to make it way more dramatic and pompous than it needs to be. The characters are overly emotional and repeatedly make ludicrous decisions that strain belief.

The biggest struggle for me was probably the first half hour or so. It feels like you’re just dropped in the middle of an already playing film; people are having conversations about things that have taken place in previous scenes that we didn’t get to see. I found it frustrating and confusing, because I felt left out of the experience. My lack of knowledge of this time period certainly didn’t help, but I do feel like they could’ve made the story a bit clearer and less muddled so the casual viewer could get a better grasp of what was happening.

The movie does reach a point where the plot starts to go deeper into Mary and Elizabeth’s relationships, and things start to become a bit easier to follow. If only it could’ve been like that from the beginning.

By far the best thing about this movie is the two leads, Ronan (Lady Bird) and Robbie. Their performances made me emotionally invested in the characters. The other standout was Jack Lowden (Dunkirk) as Lord Darnley. He has some of the most compelling moments in the film, and his arc is the most interesting out of all the supporting characters.

Saoirse Ronan as Mary Stuart in ‘Mary Queen of Scots, now playing at FilmScene. — video still

Another very strong aspect of the film was the stunning visuals. Cinematographer John Mathieson, who shot the Ridley Scott epic Gladiator, worked on this film, and he brought so much to the table. Everything looks absolutely gorgeous, from the luscious landscapes to the towering castles, and the smaller intimate settings. Mathieson did a great job of capturing truly mesmerizing imagery.

Director Josie Rourke (The Vote) comes from an extensive career directing plays. She doesn’t do much work for the big or small screen, and it certainly shows. The whole movie feels more like a play at your local theater. While there are many scenes where you get to see some brief battles and vast scenery, too much of the film takes place indoors where the setting is not very interesting.

This ends up making the movie a lot more centered around its characters — for some this will be a good thing, but it ultimately made me miss the moments when the movie was more visually enticing. Rourke did an admirable job directing, but I think there’s so much room for improvement.

Overall, Mary Queen of Scots leaves a lot to be desired. The storytelling is sloppy, and the over-wrought drama makes it hard to care about much of anything. While Ronan and Robbie were great, they weren’t enough to carry this film. People who are really into this period of history might appreciate the film. Otherwise, do yourself a favor and save your money for another movie.

Mary Queen of Scots is now showing at FilmScene.

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