I’ve been racking my brain trying to find something to talk about when it comes to the costume drama Mary Queen of Scots, because in all honesty, I found the whole thing rather dull. The best I could come up with was to have fake representation outrage. HOW DARE THIS MOVIE CAST AN AUSTRALIAN AND AN IRISH GIRL TO PLAY AND ENGLISHWOMAN AND A SCOT!?!?!?!? What, you couldn’t find English and Scottish women? Felicity Jones and Kelly Macdonald were too busy, hmm?
See how stupid that looks? Come at me, America!
Anyway, as far as the actual film is concerned, there’s not really much there. It’s shortlisted for Makeup & Hairstyling, and Margot Robbie got a SAG nomination for Supporting Actress. Also, being a Renaissance era costume drama, assume there’s at least a 50% chance it’ll get nominated for Costume Design. But honestly, I don’t think it deserves an Oscar nomination in any of these categories.
There are basically three things the movie gets right historically. One, Mary Stuart returned to Scotland as a widow having briefly been the queen consort of France, assuming the Scottish throne. Two, she married twice more, having a son by her second husband before his murder. Three, she was beheaded on Queen Elizabeth’s orders in 1586.
That’s about it. The rest is just a misguided soap opera that focuses entirely on everyone believing they should rule, not what should be done when they rule. The only hints of anything resembling policy and historical merit surround the idea of Elizabeth and her council limiting Mary’s power so that Catholicism cannot retake the Anglican church as the official state religion. Apart from that, it’s just Mary saying she should be queen, Elizabeth asserting her right to the throne, a bunch of power-hungry men grousing about women ruling at all, and for some reason, David Tennant using his role as theologian John Knox to constantly berate Mary as a whore who should be executed and hold Trump-style rallies to encourage mob justice.
Everything else just boils down to posturing and sex. Now, while I, like millions of other red-blooded men, would love to go down on Saoirse Ronan, I’m guessing that’s not what actually led to the political marriage between Mary and Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden). Similarly, given Elizabeth’s reputation as the “Virgin Queen,” the idea that Robert Dudley (Joe Alwyn) was a constant lover who just couldn’t get her pregnant is far fetched in the extreme.
Moreover, the film is really slanted in Mary’s favor. She’s seen as gracious, progressive, and accepting of all, regardless of whether they pray to her version of God or bend the knee in acknowledgement of her station. Elizabeth, on the other hand, is cold, crass, paranoid, jealous, and so enamored with her appearance that by the time the two meet (like a bad version of Heat), her face is covered in an almost Pennywise-level of pancake makeup. This is worthy of an Oscar? I don’t think so. Peasants who can only speak Gaelic are proud to fight and die for the glory of Mary, while Elizabeth is so easily manipulated by the ambitious lords of her own council that she comes off as an ignorant figurehead. Mary is beautiful, Elizabeth is a gargoyle.
And again, almost none of this has substance because the focus is always on who should rule instead of why they should. Most of that is because the why for the time was, “I was born into this because God wanted me born into it, and you can’t question God.” But in the absence of logical right in favor of the divine, you need to show how they’re better, or at least more effective, rulers. Otherwise it’s just grandstanding, and no one needs that for two plus hours.
As for the potential awards categories, like I said, the makeup is almost comical. The costuming in a film like this almost always gets nominated because it’s a period piece, but the clothes here were rather drab, except for the two leads. Elizabeth is constantly clad in gold and red, while Mary is in the brightest, boldest blues. Everyone else wears bland black. This makes the leads stick out, but this is Mary, Queen of Scots vs. Elizabeth I of England. Do they really need to stick out more? Is there any real chance we won’t be able to pick them out of a crowd?
The performances are okay, but nothing special, because again, there’s no impetus for their respective ambitions other than, “I want to rule.” At least the Lannisters on Game of Thrones have some plans for how to act once they get the throne, and Dany Targaryen’s entire journey is about making her a gracious, beloved, and feared ruler, ready to lead justly once she reclaims her birthright. It also doesn’t help here that the dialogue is just silly. In a searingly-delivered monologue about when she might remarry, Ronan delivers a line that would be better served in a Monty Python sketch: “Mary will marry whomever God decides Mary will marry, and there’ll be no marrying for Mary no matter who you want Mary to marry just because it is convenient to marry off Mary.” Are you fucking kidding me?
The film isn’t a complete failure. The cast is strong, even though the material is weak. The cinematography is decent, going to decent lengths to show that geographically speaking, England and Scotland are essentially the same, particularly in the 16th century and outside of London. The score is competent as well. They’re bright spots in an otherwise dingy film that posits melodrama and entry-level feminist hot takes as compelling drama, while at the same time almost completely rewriting the already intriguing history of these two women. I’ve seen worse, but I’ve seen a lot better as well.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Who’s the most interesting royal? What fake outrage would you like to manufacture? Let me know!