For all her privileges, Mary, Queen of Scots, led a provisional existence. Shipped at age 5 to France, where she’d spend her formative years, the Catholic royal served for less than two years as her adoptive country’s queen until misfortune left her a teenage widow. At age 21, she returned to her homeland of Scotland with a claim to the English crown but little means of seizing it. For a quarter of a century, Mary ruled as the queen of Scotland, wielding power and authority as a rare female sovereign—the only woman who’d understand her unique position being her cousin (and foe) Queen Elizabeth I. And for a quarter of a century, Mary was but the queen of Scotland, fending off would-be usurpers who believed a woman on a throne to be, at best, dangerous and unnatural.
This history provides some of the backdrop to the (grammatically irksome) new biopic Mary Queen of Scots, starring Saoirse Ronan as a headstrong and idealistic young woman bracingly, then tragically, ahead of her time. (The events of the film span Mary’s adult life, but in classic Hollywood fashion, the 24-year-old actress isn’t allowed to age.) Helmed by British theater director Josie Rourke, the period drama imagines Mary as a progressive nonconformist stuck in a century when enmity between Catholics and Protestants was perpetually pushing European countries toward civil war. She leads armies on horseback, appeals to female solidarity, talks candidly about sex, makes a big to-do about accepting a gay man in her court, and, perhaps most strikingly, wears asymmetrical earrings, including five silver hoops in her right lobe—a rocker look more at home on Portlandia than a royal portrait. The depiction isn’t remotely believable, but with Ronan endowing her character with both a steel spine and a fresh-faced naïveté (in a performance that makes her the film’s sole great asset), it’s fun, even inspiring.
For a while, anyway. The first act, in which the proud Mary settles into Scotland’s austere throne, elbowing away a religiously intolerant Protestant adviser (an unrecognizably beard-draped David Tennant), is far and away the film’s most enjoyable. Then, too quickly, the story loses its momentum, its thematic bearings, and its emotional groundedness. Written by House of Cards creator Beau Willimon and populated by mostly young, mostly hot supporting characters, the film almost passes for a spiritual successor to Showtime’s soft-core soap The Tudors, except its sex scenes are less often titillating than abusive and nauseating. (The budget, at least, is higher, with the lantern-lit Gothic sets and almost fluorescent costumes ranging from the beautiful and extravagant to something flirting with camp.) Meanwhile, conflicts and motivations and betrayals and historical details pile up into a convoy of happenings, with little time to process huge, life-altering events. It’s clear there’s enough material for a miniseries—and that’s before an arguable sexual assault upends Mary’s life, then is quickly forgotten. Who knew you could escape trauma just by leaning in?
If the film’s ahistorical qualities are initially an asset, they quickly turn into its most vexing irritant. Mary’s modern qualities suggest that the film has something relevant to say about female ambition today. But Mary Queen of Scots is also (boringly) mired in the politics and prejudices of its day. Willimon and Rourke’s approach is admirably novel, but it also just doesn’t work. Mary’s modernity isn’t allowed to last, leaving us with an unnecessary reminder that the patriarchy is frequently unkind to women. Meanwhile, the movie fills its English and Scottish courts with actors of color (including Gemma Chan, Adrian Lester, and Ismael Cruz Córdova), then doesn’t give them much to do, making the colorblind casting—which noticeably doesn’t extend to the major roles—come across as the shallowest type of diversity window dressing. And with all the battles between the kingdoms and within Scotland itself, there’s simply too much that happens for us to care much about any of this.
Mary wants to have it all: the traditionally male power of ordering people around without talkback as well as the traditionally female joys of marriage and motherhood. But 400 miles away, Queen Elizabeth (Margot Robbie in a nose prosthetic, seemingly chasing awards by playing ugly) sticks to one side of the binary. “I choose to be a man,” she declares, denying herself spousal companionship and resigning herself to probable infertility. With a succession crisis hanging over England, Mary posits herself, and later her son, as Elizabeth’s heir—a motion that the English monarch is open to but her Protestant advisers adamantly oppose.
Willimon and Rourke imagine a meeting between these two queens—the Scottish heir fair and self-assured but politically vulnerable, the Tudor pock-marked and paranoid but her reign never in dispute. (Robbie excels in this climactic scene but until then is disappointingly one-dimensional. And even then, her chalky makeup and bright-orange curls veer perilously close to Ronald McDonald cosplay.) Mary Queen of Scots laments that these two women who had so much in common had their friendship thwarted by circumstance. But while it pays lip service to how bad it is to pit women against each other, that’s exactly what the movie is structured to do, cross-cutting between the two queens in similar poses and compositions and thus asking us to compare and contrast them. The result is the self-contradictory feminism of a Taylor Swift video. If Marie Antoinette’s error was saying, “Let them eat cake,” Mary Queen of Scots’ is to try to have it, too.