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Mary Queen of Scots is billed as a showdown between two hardened female monarchs, battling for title, supremacy, and future United Kingdom lineage. In truth, the film from first-time director Josie Rourke and screenwriter Beau Willimon (The Ides of March, House of Cards) is really only the story of the titular character, the rightful ruler of the Scottish throne, heir to the English and alleged uniter of countries and cultures. The focus centers less on the public rivalry and secret compassion shared between Mary and Queen Elizabeth I and much more on the battles Mary must fight within her inner male-dominated circle.

Adapted from John Guy’s book “Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart”, Mary Queen of Scots tucks into the drama of Mary Stuart’s return to Scotland as she lays claim to the throne that her cousin holds through flowery letters and reasonable compromises. Though unwavering in her birthright, Mary reveals herself as a leader willing to bargain, to forgive, and to show compassion, sometimes to her detriment. Above all, Mary Queen of Scots is a film about just how much men despise the thought of a woman holding power and the lengths they will go to to deprive them of such. 

In the title role, Saoirse Ronan portrays a fiery picture of steely strength; she’s a ruler who balances fairness with forgiveness, who doesn’t give in to opposition, unlike the litany of weak men who surround her. Her determination rages, evident when she flares the dangerous whites of her eyes at those who seek to betray her trust. Her treacherous brother, who looks not unlike a scrapped first draft of Aquaman, is the worst offender, constantly playing turncoat and seemingly without recompense. He is one of the many frustrating side characters in a movie brimming with them. 

Mary is depicted as a woman in open rebellion with tradition, beseeched on all sides by the treachery of jealous, sexist counsel. Though her opponents assume otherwise, her gender is her greatest strength, only a detriment so far as those who seek to curry favor, and later, whittle and steal away her power, see it as such. Those who surround Mary see her femaleness as a handicap and proceed accordingly. They plot. They backstab. They beg. But Mary does not bend or break. Her similarly-gendered rival on the other hand…

The usually breathtaking Margot Robbie is indistinguishable as Queen Elizabeth I. Robbie is robbed of her traditional beauty by a hook nose and an infestation of pox, tucked beneath a conflagration of fire-hydrant-red butterscotch tufts. Looking quite alien, slathered in a sheet cake’s worth of concealer, she is a character of limited mileage, unfortunately shy of meat on the bones. From what we’re provided, Elizabeth fancies herself more “man than woman”, refusing matrimony and either unable or unwilling to bear children of her own, but her character (and those that surround her) fail to coalesce into something greater than another vision of sniveling men tearing away at a woman ruler. By the end, not enough work has been put in to justify some major decisions that are made. Undoubtedly, Robbie is strong in the role but there’s just not quite enough to chew on to call the performance great nor run it up the flag pole for major award’s conversations.

As surefire a contender as there can be for awards when it comes to hair and makeup and costume design, the various shapes human hair is tucked and shaped and sculpted into as astonishing a power as Mary Queen of Scots possesses. Likewise, the costumery from Alexandra Bryne is an exquisite showcase of regal attire and antiquated fashion. Sitting atop its leading ladies, the film is handsome, stately.

Fans of royal dramas will find a boon to adore beyond the perfumed aesthetics of Rourke’s film with political intrigue, double-, triple-, and quadruple-crosses and subtle verbal barbs, spars, and bars all flying fast and loose, the dialogue from Willimon affording no short measure of high English that so many regal fanboys and girls fancy so highly. At times, the pacing gets away from Rourke, Mary Queen of Scots moving at an inconsistent cadence that limits its ability to sink its emotional hooks in, galloping when it should canter and vice versa. As a purely intellectual exercise, the film succeeds greatly, especially in its stomach-churning parallels to our current day and age and how the trend of sexism in leadership extends to today, a simple but deplorable fact evident in the language with which the US President speaks about his many perceived female opponents. Lock her up indeed.

CONCLUSION: “Mary Queen of Scots” boasts a tremendous performance from Saoirse Ronan and laudable costume, hair, and makeup but the regal drama comes up short connecting all the dots, failing to convince audiences that this story wouldn’t have worked better served as a mini-series on some prestige TV network.

B-

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