Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Mary Queen of Scots - Review

Where one costume drama strives to be different and unique in The Favourite, another aims for the typical and well-traveled path of films that have come before. It isn’t that Mary Queen of Scots is bad by any means, just safe, utilizing the usual tropes and beats that similar films have come to follow. And yet its production design and costumes paired with some talented leading women make it hard to write off entirely.

Queen of France at 16 and widowed at 18, Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan) defies pressure to remarry. Instead, she returns to her native Scotland to reclaim her rightful throne. But Scotland and England fall under the rule of the compelling Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie). Each young Queen beholds her sister in fear and fascination. Rivals in power and in love, and female regents in a masculine world, the two must decide how to play the game of marriage versus independence.

Two women, two queens. Both of these actresses are uniquely talented individuals are worthy of filling the shoes of royalty, it’s only a shame the script wasn’t slightly more giving to them both. For Saoirse Ronan, the character of Mary never really takes hold. Her performance is good, rarely does Ronan not deliver at minimum a good performance, but the interpretation lacks charisma or immediacy and is far too progressive for a sixteenth century monarch. 

On the other hand, is Margot Robbie, who fares a bit better in a different role than she is used to. The performance from Robbie showcases her abilities as a character actor, a perfect counterpart to the more likable lead and morally damaged individual. Director Josie Rourke uses Elizabeth sparingly, and it allows the majesty of Mary to shine through even brighter.

If nothing else, the design and look of the film is elegant as could be. The score from Max Richter is one of the year’s best, despite being left of the Oscar shortlist for Best Original Score, and the costumes from Alexandra Byrne, who has experience in the Elizabethan Age department, are downright gorgeous. Mary Queen of Scots is a beautifully made movie, a treat for the eyes even when the narrative elements may slip up.

Where the film falters in its exceptionally poor pacing, a potential side effect from a first-time director in Josie Rourke. The first half of the film is committed to the rather non-cinematic details of the various rules of succession. While it is undoubtedly needed to some degree for understanding the dynamic between Elizabeth and Mary, it runs the risk of alienating those members of the audience who find the inner-workings of royalty taxing. And unfortunately, Mary Queen of Scots does immense damage to its narrative by doing just that, getting caught in the minutia of it all before finally reaching the far more cinematic and interesting moments of the back half. 

Mary Queen of Scots is not the most adventurous or daring historical costume drama in recent memory, but there’s enough there for those interested in these figures to gain their interest. If royal politics and succession are not your area of interest however, the film may leave you wanting more beyond the beautiful technical elements and the solid lead performances. There are too many problems with the narrative and the pacing to call this a complete success, but there are worse ways to spend a few hours of the day and it feels like a decent foundation for director Josie Rourke’s budding career. 

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