There’s exactly one Great Scene, and it arrives near the end. That’s when cousins and rivals Mary Queen of Scots (Saoirse Ronan) and Queen Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie) finally meet — on neutral ground — for an intense heart-to-heart. It’s staged in a dreamy maze of fabric to hide Elizabeth’s appearance and culminates in emotionally loaded dialogue that brims with heated anger and tearful reveals. From what I’ve read, the encounter didn’t even happen. And to that I say . . . I don’t care! Mary Queen of Scots could have used more of this panache.
The journey to get to that sizzling showdown is long, sedate and rather unspectacular considering the delicious narrative. Hello, we’re talking about two fiery royals fighting over their rightful place in history. They must try to maintain power despite conniving, manipulative and aggressive men nipping at their heels. Yet none of these developments pop off the screen — and though the film presents itself as a modern take on the costume piece, you’ve seen all the battles, history lessons and corsets already. Put it this way: The just-released The Favouriteis the winner at turning a tired genre upside-down in a satisfying way.
Mary Queen of Scots begins in 1561 in a turgidly paced and rather convoluted first act. The titular character returns to her native land after being raised Catholic in France and being widowed by King Francis II at age 17. The strong-willed Mary is determined to return to her place on the throne, which doesn’t sit well with her half-brother, the Earl of Moray (James McArdle) who’s been ruling in her absence. Meanwhile, a Protestant named John Knox (David Tennant) spreads vicious lies about Mary, convincing his followers that Mary’s reign is not kosher.
Her most dangerous rival is her own flesh-and-blood in England, her 25-year-old cousin Queen Elizabeth I. The two monarchs have never met, but exchange letters in which they share their secret ambitious and fears and reveals insights about what it’s like to be a woman in charge. Mary feels such a kinship to Elizabeth that she refers to her as her sister. There’s no reason in theory why they shouldn’t be allies and settled the differences between their countries. Mary suggests that she would only inherit the throne if Elizabeth, the unattached daughter of King Henry VIII, fails to produce an heir. Elizabeth considers it, despite her insecurities and popularity among her subjects. But her chief advisor (Guy Pearce) is certainly not having it. Indeed, heads will roll (ahem) before that happens.
Ronan and Robbie, who competed in the Best Actress Oscar category all of nine months ago, fascinate in the roles. As we all know from Lady Bird, Ronan is brilliant at playing a head-strong teenager — she does it again here, only wearing a corset and speaking in a thick Scottish brogue. Robbie, in a supporting role, is the anti-Tonya Harding. She’s tender and vulnerable, not yet the tart Elizabeth who Dame Judi Dench played in Shakespeare in Love. Robbie is also asked to hide behind an unruly wig of orange-red hair, a prosthetic nose, white pancake makeup and pox on her face. (I didn’t realize it was possible to de-glam to play a monarch in the Elizabethan age.)
The actresses work best when they’re playing off each other, if not in person than in spirit. At a distance and acting independently, the women don’t quite come alive or earn enough empathy to be considered heroines. Mary is depicted as a desperate teenager, throwing herself at a man in order to have his baby then asking her handmaidens to pray for her to be knocked up. Elizabeth gives up her crush (Joe Alwyn) for Mary, yet the film only hints at her pain.
Director Josie Rourke, who comes from a theater background, often stages her debut film like a play. Characters talk at each other, almost as if they’re standing on separate ends of a stage. The period-speak dialogue lacks flavor. And, curiously, the period aesthetic never takes on a ravishing cinematic quality. If you’re going to keep the two leads at a distance for 85 percent of the movie at least give the audience something pretty to look at. Oh, Mary Queen of Scots. What a royal disappointment.
Mary Queen of Scots opens in select theaters on Friday, December 7