There’s something about Mary Stuart that the movies can’t resist, and it’s no mystery—the spectacle of a fierce and formidable queen surrounded by scheming men, the tragedy of a headstrong woman who loses her head. She was a feminist before her pop-cultural time when Katharine Hepburn played her in 1936—“I’m going to live my own life!” she declared. Now, played by Saoirse Ronan in “Mary Queen of Scots,” she’s a compelling figure for our #MeToo time. So is her cousin, rival, nemesis and, as this Mary believes ardently, potential partner in a royal sisterhood of peace and wisdom, England’s Queen Elizabeth (Margot Robbie). What’s mysterious about this film is why, with so much on its mind and such gifted stars to express it, the drama should be so unaffecting—even when the two women finally meet, as they neglected to do in the less shapely drama of real life.
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The narrative moves lurchingly, with frequent inter-queen crosscuts that call attention to the choppy structure. Mary, an open spirit if a heedless one, comes home from France as an 18-year-old widow, prepared to take what she considers her rightful place on the Scottish throne, and to assert, by virtue of her lineage, her claim on the English throne as well. Elizabeth, the English monarch, wields great power in her own realm, but Mary’s return presents an immediate threat to her rule, so Elizabeth plots with her advisers what to do about it. The plotting and scheming on both sides of the rivalry border on impenetrable, though, in fairness, the director, Josie Rourke, and the screenwriter, Beau Willimon, are less interested in political strategy than in the choices both women make to secure their positions in a world of men, and the personal price they must pay in the process.
The story is mainly Mary’s, of course, and Ms. Ronan brings a spiritual fervor, as well as a strong sexual charge, to the role. (An abiding mystery of her performances is how her facial features, none of them individually imposing, combine with her marvelously musical voice to convey physical beauty and deep feeling.) Ms. Robbie has it easier, thanks to her character’s inherent theatricality—this Elizabeth is a great beauty until smallpox disfigures her face. The actress also has it harder, given the potential for caricature once the stricken queen takes refuge behind what might strike contemporary eyes as clown-white makeup. (And given the fact that Elizabeth was previously played, in 1998 and again in 2007, by Cate Blanchett.) In any case, Ms. Robbie rises to all challenges; she makes her queen a fine foil to the heroine of the piece.
The challenge of the film as a whole is framing a feminist vision of these oft-recounted events without falling into didacticism. How the filmmakers go about it is another story.
The respective imperatives—and plights—of Mary and Elizabeth are dramatic because they ring true in their essence, factual liberties notwithstanding, and in their contemporary resonance. It’s dismaying to watch these phenomenal females insulted, threatened, diminished or manipulated by their male inferiors—the film functions as, among other things, a study of two women in their workplaces—and gratifying to see their pent-up fury explode.
But “Mary Queen of Scots” makes its points repetitively, and relentlessly, especially when the subject is sex. (The subject is often sex, since Mary’s taste in men is unreliable, to say the least, and her reputation is unjustly besmirched, in this version, by accusations—from her male enemies—that she’s a wanton or a whore.) The director and the screenwriter are prominent in their fields, Ms. Rourke in the theater and Mr. Willimon in TV, yet both are making their feature debuts, and their big-screen inexperience shows.
A battle sequence is clumsily staged, with Mary, on horseback, looking on inexpressively, like an actress waiting for direction. We get more than enough of John Knox (David Tennant), the angry leader of Scotland’s Reformation, to whom the camera turns every time there’s a lull in the action, or surcease in the sex talk. Segments succeed each other with few grace notes and little flow. And that climactic confrontation between Mary and Elizabeth, staged at a country cottage amid curtains waving surreally in a breeze, declines to ignite: not because it’s fictional, but precisely because it’s staged, with purposeful aesthetics—the curtains are there so Elizabeth can conceal her grotesque appearance. #ThemToo, the scene tells us, but it’s a construction, at once lovely and eerily lifeless.
Write to Joe Morgenstern at firstname.lastname@example.org