Something that any Oh! That Film Blog reader will know about me is that I am a bastard for a musical, but another fact you might not be so familiar with is that I also happen to a bastard for a Tudor! From the first Henry to the final Liz, the Tudor period is one of my favourite eras of British history both to learn about and to see played out on the big screen. We have been treated to some real doozies over the years, and you better believe that the second I heard talk of this particular addition to the collection, I was chomping at the bit and ready to go.
It’s a huge shame, then, that on the whole Mary Queen Of Scots turns out to be something of a disappointment. As the title suggests, the film focuses on the return to her homeland of Mary, Queen Of Scots (Saoirse Ronan), and the subsequent tensions and battles that took place as a result of the threat she posed to the English throne and the rule of Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie). From the cast to the subject matter, all of the pieces are in place to produce something really striking, but unfortunately the film is let down by a plodding pace and a script that feels like some of the worst parts of an average Game Of Thrones episode.
Mary, Queen Of Scots and Elizabeth I are without doubt two of the most interesting women in history, but somehow their actions and narratives are made to feel, quite honestly, boring for a lot of the film’s runtime. There is a sense of frustration that echoes from the screen to the audience, a sense of two women in positions of power that, due the circumstances of their time, are still very much at the mercy of the men who council them. It’s not like I was going in expecting a girl power fist bump, but it would have been nice to see two such historically and culturally important women get to spread their own wings a little more than the film ultimately portrays.
Some of the picture’s visuals are great, especially those pertaining to Elizabeth’s failing health and declining beauty. As the title suggests, the vast majority of the film is spent with Mary and her struggles north of the border, but if I’m being honest, the more interesting sequences of the narrative are those spent in the southern court of the English queen. Perhaps it is precisely the sparsity of Elizabeth’s on screen moments that leave you wanting more, but I can’t help but think that a more pleasing balance could have been found, with more interesting Elizabeth moments and fewer borderline dull and superfluous Mary moments.
Ultimately, I can’t say that the film is a bad one in the traditional cinematic sense, more just a case of expectations being depressingly unmet. I wanted much more than the film ended up giving me, so maybe it’s my fault, or maybe it really is mediocre execution of a killer premise.
There’s no doubting that the performances of Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie are the film’s greatest assets. The two actresses join a large club of legendary performers who have taken on the roles over the years, including the likes of Cate Blanchett, Katharine Hepburn, Vanessa Redgrave, Judi Dench, Helen Mirren, Glenda Jackson, Samantha Morton, Elizabeth Taylor, Bette Davis, the list goes on and on!
As Mary, Ronan is fierce and feisty, relatively small in stature but possessed with a determination to seek what she believes firmly to be her destiny. She plays the Queen with a kindness in closed quarters and a steeliness and stubbornness in her royal duty, a stubbornness that eventually proves to be her downfall but not before the audience has made an empathetic connection with her cause.
As Elizabeth I, Margot Robbie certainly has the ‘snappier’ role. She might not have the long monologues and tense enemy stand offs that Ronan gets to play as Mary, but her character prosthetics and changing looks over the course of the narrative make her role a smaller but potentially more memorable one when all is said and done. Robbie’s Elizabeth is a much more insecure, nervous, vulnerable version than Cate Blanchett’s, for example, but the characterisation works for this particular take on the story.
Ronan and Robbie spend 99% of the picture apart, and whilst the build up to their tense meeting is intended to reach Pacino/DeNiro in Heat proportions, maybe the biggest let down of the entire project is that this climactic conference falls a little flat.
Overall, Mary Queen Of Scots, in my opinion, sadly has to go in the pile of hugely wasted opportunities. The casting feels perfect and the bones of a truly gripping historical legend are there, but there is something in the execution and focus choices that cast a rather plodding, dull shadow over the entire film. I hate to say it, but it’s a classic case of all the best bits being packed in to the trailer.