Peak TV has made a profound influence on period movies, especially those tracking British history. In an era when British television production has covered just about every aspect of the U.K.’s history, it is hard to make a movie that can climb above that fray. Unfortunately, Josie Rourke’s Mary Queen of Scots, the respected theater director’s first foray into filmmaking, is not that movie.
Advertised as a movie centered on the rivalry between Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan) and Queen Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie), it plays more like a straight biopic of just Mary. Rourke attempts to find its center with the 1569 Rising of the North, but the script by House of Cards‘ Beau Willimon moves all over the place. We jump between England and Scotland, with scenes in the two countries interrupting what could be fantastic acting showpieces if Rourke and Willimon had any faith in the audience. The two juggle between the private lives of these characters and the political situations they face without diving beyond the surface in either realm or even care for historical accuracy.
Acting saves Rourke and Willimon though. Ronan, who has been on a ridiculous tear lately with great roles, and Robbie are wonderful as the dueling queens. They also have a stacked supporting cast behind them, although many of the men have been better elsewhere. While Joe Alwyn somehow figured out how to shine in Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite, here he comes off as a forgettable good-looking face in Elizabeth’s court. James McArdle was a surprising stand-out as the Earl of Moray, Mary’s half-brother.
The intricate costume design by Alexandra Bynre, who won an Oscar for Elizabeth: The Golden Age, is sure to pick up another nomination for her work here. Production design by James Merifield and the wonderful cinematography by frequent Ridley Scott collaborator John Mathieson also justify Mary‘s theatrical release.
Rourke shows flashes of brilliance with her directing but again, there appears to be little faith in the audience to sit through longer scenes of debate and deliberations. With the kind of cast she had for her first movie, she should not have worried about that. Yet Mary Queen of Scots turns out to be an example of heavy-handed editing gone wrong and a script trying to do way too much in two hours. It all adds up to an abridged version of a 10-hour miniseries.