Cinematic portrayals of the death of Mary, Queen of Scots are about as old as cinema itself — you can find what many consider to be the very first special effect in an 18-second silent film depicting her beheading from 1895 — but they’ve rarely been as turgidly imagined as in Josie Rourke’s Mary Queen of Scots. On paper, you’ve got what looks like an incredible meeting of the minds: Rourke, a famous London theater director making her theatrical debut, collaborating with Beau Willimon, author and showrunner of the Netflix version of House of Cards and two incredible young actors, Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie. On screen, you have a complete and total misfire, that buries compelling drama in favor of half-baked modern political analogue. If you’re familiar with the writer’s work, you probably can guess where the blame lies for this awards-season disaster.
Anyways, the raised-in-exile-in-France Mary Stuart (Ronan, Irish), the heir to the Scottish throne, arrives in her home country along with her ladies in waiting to consolidate her power. Her arrival doesn’t go unnoticed, as her cousin, Queen Elizabeth (Robbie, Australian) takes notice and beings to establish diplomatic ties with her. Mary, glad at first simply to have her throne after a lifetime of waiting, begins to scheme on how to take Elizabeth’s as well, given that she’s got an even stronger claim to it than the Tudor. And, given that Elizabeth hasn’t had any babies yet nor has she declared an heir, Mary believes that motherhood is the path to her power. Obviously, this fucks with Elizabeth, who (in true revisionist) finances a revolution to threaten her crown while also providing her with a husband — the drunken, gay Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden) — in an effort to sabotage her personal life. So, Mary will have to protect her neck from the various forces looking to murder her and the son that she’s about to have. Anyways, all of this is long and winding, but it’s not nearly complicated enough to be this frustrating to write about. Chalk that up to a screenwriter who has written a ton of television, I guess.
Again, much of what makes Mary Queen of Scots so odd is directly Willimon’s fault — who is also being trotted out by the studio to be the face of the creative side of the film with articles like these — and it’s very difficult to blame Rourke for much of what’s going on here, as what she brings to the table are some fascinating and occasionally successful choices, such as her decision to disregard the record and fill out the cast with a number of diverse performers (Gemma Chan and Adrian Lester being two standouts). And, ultimately, I was there for the attempts at making Mary a Hilary Clinton analogue, complete with “lock her up” chants at sermons given by John Knox (a fabulously bearded David Tennant), even though I don’t think it all of it works very well (more on that in a second). Indeed, her worst aesthetic choice comes from the type of camera she films the picture with, which gives each actor in the midst of movement the same auto-glide smoothness that Tom Cruise had to release a PSA about. One wonders, however, what this movie might have looked like had Rourke been able to pursue her significantly-more-lurid take on Coppola’s Marie Antoinette instead of whatever this half-assed political thriller ultimately winds up being, thanks to Willimon wanting it to resemble a House of Cards episode with all of its sex and intrigue while hewing close to the historical events. This may have worked if the compromise between lurid fiction and pallid reality wasn’t so fraught: when in doubt, lean into the former.
The faults in the writing bleed over into the lead performances, with Willimon’s half-assed understanding of Scottish/English relations at the time resulting into some painfully weird choices. Ronan was obviously asked to bring her particular blend of precociousness to the table, and she does a well-enough job making Mary seem like an overeager teenager minutes away from bursting out in “I Just Can’t Wait to Be Queen” in a blustery Scottish brogue. Yet Willimon’s attempts at making this relevant to our current context — that the slimy men surrounding Mary, jockeying for power, scheming against her, and railing against her rule from the pulpit — ultimately take away a great deal of her agency as a character. It’s even weirder in the case of Darnley, her second husband, who has a detail omitted from his biography that would justify his scheming — he was Mary’s third cousin, and suspected he had an even greater claim to the throne than she did — but that might gross some people out, especially with the close-to-explicit nature of their scenes together. But Willimon also enjoys seeing her as a younger woman, and writes himself an excuse so she doesn’t have to age throughout the film: Remember, Mary was 44 when she was executed.
But no matter how odd Mary is handled, Elizabeth fares even worse in all of this. She’s diagnosed by the screenwriter as being “baby crazy,” sulking when she watches a foal being born and engaging of fits of fury when she discovers that Mary may produce an heir. Her affairs are full of petty jealousy, and, when she nearly sends off the love of her life, Robert Dudley (Joe Alwyn, asked to do significantly less here than in The Favourite), to be wed to Mary, she, full of pox and fever, throws herself at his feet and begs him not to go. It paints her as an odd incompetent in comparison to Mary’s guile, and Williamson doesn’t know how to give her any more shading, perhaps because of how frequently the Queen has been portrayed in cinema: why risk doing something braver (and less misogynistic, frankly) when Cate Blanchett and company have already done so? Robbie’s fine enough (especially in her physical transformation, thanks to costumer Alexandra Byrne, into a walking portrait of the woman), but this is another thankless role for her, playing second fiddle to Mary all the way through her fictionalized meet-up with her in a farmhouse near the English coast, where the woman who fought off the Spanish Armada is reduced to whimpers by someone who is, essentially, a political refugee at that point.
All this character work leads to the conclusion of film, where Elizabeth narrates a letter to Mary explaining why she’s got to die, and it acts as a Rosetta Stone for its themes. She declares that she has become too much of a “man” in the man’s world of politics for mercy, and that Mary, too good for this world, will ultimately be avenged by her son (the hardly beloved James I) who will ascend to the throne after Elizabeth passes away. It’s there that Willimon’s vision for the film — that it would portray the patriarchy as snuffing out all light, be it on a personal or a political level — becomes even more crystal clear, and enlightens the paths towards plenty of these missteps. That includes the LGBTQ members of the ensemble — including the lovers Darnley and Rizzio (Ismael Cruz Córdova), Mary’s.trans-feeling secretary — who are portrayed in a light both pathetic (Rizzio’s defense of “he was just too hot” when asked about why he betrayed his queen is… not great!) and occasionally malicious (in which homosexuality is another one of Durnley’s vices, even in the eyes of the film). This, of course, results in them being the only on-screen deaths of named characters that we get to watch over the length of the film’s two hours. If the patriarchy does indeed corrupt all, then it most definitely has corrupted this screenplay, written by a man who, despite his very best efforts, can’t free himself from the shackles of his power in order to spend time in a person of another gender’s shoes. And, as such, Mary Queen of Scots fails as cinema and as revolutionary tract.