Set in the 16th century, Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan) has recently lost her husband, and returns to Scotland from France with the intent to establish her position as the Queen of Scotland. Naturally, this doesn’t go down well with her cousin, the Queen of England, Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie). Queen Elizabeth is Protestant, unmarried and childless, while Queen Mary is Catholic. Naturally, Mary is immediately perceived as a threat to Elizabeth’s place on the throne. This leads to a series of dangerous scheming in both courts as the two strong-willed women battle their way through manipulative advisers as they take each other on.
Saoirse Ronan is an immediate standout; the young actress gives a passionate performance as the Queen of Scotland with a fierce on-screen presence that demands your attention. Margot Robbie is no less impactful, as the somewhat erratic and unpredictable Queen Elizabeth. She disappears under layers of makeup, which is symbolic in how it’s hard to tell Elizabeth’s true intentions. She oscillates between vulnerable and steadfast, although one wonders if that is by design or due to the lack of clarity in how her character is defined. The supporting cast is pretty solid, with Guy Pearce and David Tennant on Elizabeth’s side of the border, respectively playing William Cecil and John Knox with convincingly sinister undertones. In Mary’s court, Lord Darnley played by Jack Lowden and Ismael Cruz Cordova’s David Rizzio are the most memorable characters. Their interplay drives a majority of the plot which leads to the film’s pivotal point.
Up until that point though, the tonality runs between being mildly interesting to downright drab, as director Josie Rourke focuses on putting all the pieces in motion for the eventual showdown between Mary and Elizabeth. While historically debatable – the two allegedly never met – seeing Margot Robbie and Saoirse Ronan confront each other is magnetic. Equally mesmerising is the attention given to the costume and set design, to the point of being distracting in the best way possible. Likewise, John Mathieson’s cinematography elegantly captures Scotland’s stunning vistas. In the end, the film’s intended impact is severely hampered by clunky pacing and a convoluted plot that fails to engage. ‘Mary Queen of the Scots’ has a timely premise with a lot to say about toxic masculinity and women empowerment but never gets around to it, despite its brief sparks of brilliance that quickly die out before catching fire.