It’s hard to imagine a juicier historical story to film. Two rare female leaders in 16th century Britain, locked in fights for their crowns, their heritage and their lives – all while trying to steal each other’s kingdoms.
Beau Willimon’s script, based on John Guy’s book, provides a decent approximation of the true story of Mary Queen of Scots, and her first cousin Queen Elizabeth I of England. It’s history with the gaps filled in and some liberties taken – most notably a few scenes that turn historical rumour into film fact by presenting a Queen unusually tolerant of the LGBT community for someone of her time.
These are forgivable uses of creative licence, and for the most part Willimon avoids the worst clichés of filmed history. The biggest problem is with director Josie Rourke’s control of the performances.
The entire ensemble give spirited, technically strong showings, but they never really feel alive. It’s hard to disconnect from the fact you’re watching actors on camera, acting. Perhaps part of that problem is her theatre background, which even at its most avant-garde prioritises a formal, mannered style of acting.
There feels no space for human gestures or slips of the tongue; everything is note perfect, and therefore safe, and therefore boring. Mary Queen of Scots is at its best in its final half-hour, when Rourke allows the chaos of Mary’s final days in Scotland to spill over and then sink into silence in her one, fictional meeting with Elizabeth.
Ronan impresses again, hiding her spiky edges in a soft but forceful persona while Margot Robbie is short-changed as an inspirational Queen wallowing in her own misery.
The trailer promised fireworks, but Mary Queen of Scots is a disappointing and formulaic period piece that delivers a moody take on her royal rivalry.
CAST: Saoirse Ronan, Margot Robbie, Jack Lowden, Adrian Lester, Guy Pearce, David Tennant
DIRECTOR: Josie Rourke
WRITER: Beau Willimon (screenplay), John Guy (Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart)
SYNOPSIS: Mary Stuart’s attempt to overthrow her cousin Elizabeth I, Queen of England, finds her condemned to years of imprisonment before facing execution.