Two powerful queens imbued in an epic battle for the throne. A period piece story of grandiose proportions that is for the most part rooted in truth. The publicity and promotion for this film parades this expected story with colourful imagery and cool taglines… what follows however isn’t what we are led to believe. The film begins with Mary Stuart’s (Saoirse Ronan) return to her native Scotland to reclaim her throne. Yet Scotland and England fall under the rule of the even more powerful and compelling Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie). Each young Queen, wishing subjugation from the other, are advised and manipulated by councils of inadequate and greedy men. Conspiracies and manipulative betrayal within each court threatens both queens sovereignty and lives.
The narrative is the stuff of cinema dreams. Unfortunately, our expectations are beheaded. The broad feminist allegory runs hollow as an attempt to strengthen the characters of Mary and Elizabeth fail. Instead of making the women complex royals in a male driven society and dealing with the sexual politics of that; the story comes off as a competitive scoreboard between the two leads as to who is the victim of more sexism. The leads are inherently fascinating… so why make their ambition anaemic. We are shown unsatisfying and poorly contextualized characters. Mary in particular spends much of the film lost in a romantic love triangle and boring power struggle with her council taking away from a more interesting characters study of the two historical females.
The casting is spot on with both leads bringing new and youthful facets to the two historical figures. Ronan has the burden of carrying the film entirely on her shoulders, and she gives a strong performance albeit playing safe. She doesn’t relish the fiery female or give her the complexities Ronan is capable of. She is utterly outdone by Robbie. Elizabeth is a difficult and complex role that only the most gifted of actresses succeed in portraying, she delivers a captivating performance that finds pathos, fierceness and crippling vulnerability. The most damaging thing to this performance and the film is the disappointing lack of sufficient screen time. The keenly anticipated meeting between the two queens (although historically inaccurate) is a tremendous letdown. More problematic are certain characters and dialogue. Including a gay courtier and council members that undergo radical personality, sexuality and racial changes that hardly seem to fit the story.
Mary Queen of Scots is a soap opera that insists it’s a political thriller. The costuming bursts with colour and the sets are striking. But this movie is little more than a vibrant-looking tableau. Mary Queen of Scots is a spirited attempt to show case a turbulent part of history with two iconic females. But its admirable intentions are undone by its insincere narrative.
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