The Pitch: To summarize Mary Queen of Scots is to use a whole bunch of words when, for the most part, “consult your history books” would suffice. Still, what the hell, let’s dance. When Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan) lands on the Scotland shore, setting foot on the soil of her birthplace for the first time since she was a child. What awaits her is a throne, her due as Queen of Scotland, but also a fierce battle for stability, independence, and power. Most of that struggle arrives with men, from Scotland and England alike — men who want to control her, influence her, prop her up, drag her down, seduce her, enrage her, defend her, defeat her. The rest is with Elizabeth (Margot Robbie), Gloriana, Ruler of England and Ireland. She also happens to be Mary’s cousin.
Despite the men, and there are so many men, that’s where the film lives — with two powerful, complex women, bound by blood, shared experience, and conflict, and their attempts to alternately (and sometimes simultaneously) conquer and connect with each other.
When Ronan Met Robbie: There’s much to engage the mind, and sometimes the heart, in Mary Queen of Scots, but two things above all else make it worth your while. The second is the costuming, along with the hair and makeup — pretty, but many other things besides. (More on all that later.) The first, it will not surprise anyone to learn, is the presence of two of the world’s most interesting, dynamic performers.
Prepare to be shocked: They’re both great. Ronan’s performance is one of both flint and steel, reveling both in Mary’s bolder, more heroic qualities as well as her flaws (both categories central to the plot). As the title would suggest, it’s her film, and Ronan’s well up to the task, but while she’s asked to do most of the heavy lifting, it’s Robbie who has the more herculean task. With much less screen time than Ronan, she imbues Good Queen Bess with crippling insecurities, crackling intelligence, and a means of entering the world that transforms over time. Communicating nearly always through either letters or envoys, Robbie and Ronan’s performances nevertheless feel inextricably linked, a testament both to the performers and to director Josie Rourke.
Many Kinds of Armor: Costume designer Alexandra Byrne, who won an Oscar for costume design in 2008, creates some of the best designs for the year for Mary Queen of Scots. The garments are beautiful, evocative, and specific, rich in texture and in meaning alike. That’s quite an accomplishment, all by itself — there are worse ways to spend one’s time then looking at astonishingly beautiful clothes for a couple of hours. But Byrne being an excellent designer, these are more than mere garments. Like the best in her field, she approaches what’s worn by considering what these women would choose to wear, what they’d be asked to wear, how the clothes they chose and those that were forced on them would fit and move differently, how they function practically as well as narratively, which features they’d wish to hide and which to emphasize… the list goes on. It’s possible to see them as pretty clothes and call it a day, but to do that is to rob yourself of layers of meaning and resonance. What Byrne offers here is nothing less than the chance to engage with the story through considering the choice of a shoe, a gown, a ruff, a color, a stocking. Remarkable stuff.
Oh, and that Oscar she won? It was for Elizabeth: The Golden Age. This lady knows her business.
Really, Mary Queen of Scots? Really?: On the other hand, if the costuming and performances are thoughtful and multifaceted, the screenplay (by Beau Willimon of House of Cards and The First) only occasionally earns such descriptors. That’s not to say that the story fails to grab interest, or that it’s dangerously thoughtless or shallow, but Willimon’s screenplay (adapted from John Guy’s book Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart) paints with a very broad brush, to the disservice of the performers. That’s particularly true of the men, who cannot benefit from the thematic and political resonances of the film in the same way that the women can, and who instead serve as stand-ins for one facet of misogyny or another. There’s the “women are foul, evil temptresses” one (David Tennant, ice cold), the “here to rescue you until it’s more convenient for me to take over your life” one, the “pretending to love you because you’re so easily manipulated” one, and so on and so forth.
Still, the peak of this has to be the moment when one of these incredibly intelligent women makes a life-changing, course-of-history-altering decision because someone pays attention to her clitoris — an idea that then goes almost entirely unexplored. If Willimon’s script were as interested in the interiority of these women and the complex societal forces that work around and against them as it was in sky-writing SEXISM over and over again, this often compelling but frustratingly broad film would operate on an entirely different level.
The Verdict: If you walk into Mary Queen of Scots looking to be dazzled by some great performances and rich art direction, you’ll walk out satisfied, no question. If you want something more than that, it’s like the reaction will be more mixed. That’s no crime—terrific actors in pretty dresses have a long and storied cinematic history. Peculiarly, it’s the flashes of something more that make Mary an occasionally lackluster experience. I’s a sour experience, realizing that a decent film could have been a great one, and a little mournful, too. It’s a tiny taste of what it’s like to consider what Elizabeth and Mary might have shared, what they could have become — the bitter sting of potential wasted, the frustrating prospect of what might have been. At least it all looks amazing.
Where’s It Playing?: Mary Queen of Scots debuts on limited screens December 7th, and will expand nationwide in the following weeks.