Mary Queen of Scots takes the Wikipedia approach to historical epics

Despite great performances and high drama, Josie Rourke’s film collapses under its own weight.

Jack Lowden, Saoirse Ronan and James McArdle in Mary Queen of Scots

Mary, Queen of Scots is a very different film from David Mackenzie’s Outlaw King: it’s about a different period of time, with different themes, different vibes and a wholly different visual style. They have the monarchy and Scottish accents in common — and also their one fatal flaw. Both of these movies are attracted to history for its timeless elements: the drama, the betrayal, the bloodshed. Unlike a historical film about a perhaps more arcane and unrelatable topic (like, for example, the whole concept of apostatizing that drives Scorsese’s Silence), the broad lines are very clearly drawn in Josie Rourke’s Mary Queen of Scots: it’s the stuff of melodrama that would work just as well in any setting, at any time. Unfortunately, the film is beholden to a screenplay that wants to have its historical cake and eat it, too. It’s a movie that wants to be both BBC and WB at once, ultimately collapsing under the dead weight of historical accuracy (or, at the very least, historical detail).

Born to King James just days before his death, Mary, Queen of Scots (Saoirse Ronan) spends her youth in France, eventually marrying the man who will become King Francis. After his early death, she returns to Scotland and finds herself at the heart of an unwinnable struggle. Her cousin Elizabeth, queen of England (Margot Robbie), is advised by the many men in her life (particularly a buggin’-out cleric played by David Tennant) that no Protestant shall ever be the Queen, and they entertain the idea of sabotaging her rule.

Things get pretty well started when Mary marries her first cousin, Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden) who seduces her through 20 seconds of selfless cunnilingus (!) but soon proves to be an unfit husband, unwilling and unable to impregnate his wife with a descendant for the throne. (As it turns out, Darnley much prefers the company of men, having married Mary mostly with prestige and power in mind.) Throughout Mary’s life, her best efforts are always thwarted by the men around her — cowardly liars and backstabbing nincompoops who take a swing at the Queen and mostly miss. Yet the biggest influence on her actions seems to be the cousin she’s never met but who remains possessively jealous her: Elizabeth.

This is great, dramatic stuff in its raw form, but a whole heaping lot of information for a two hour movie. A miniseries may have been better suited to the story — or at least one that doesn’t encompass 45 years of a life rich with twists and incidents. As it stands, the first hour or so of Mary Queen of Scots is comprised almost entirely of short scenes that spew exposition and end immediately once that information is spit forth. A plethora of Scottish-accented beardos parade past and lay the groundwork for hundreds of years of monarchic shenanigans, which means that for an hour or so, Mary Queen of Scots has absolutely no sense of character or space. It’s essentially an hour of the most expensive title cards ever made, very slowly and disinterestedly placing its ducks in a row.

Maybe it’s me, at this point: the last two costume dramas from this period I’ve seen have felt airless and bloodless in this manner. But I’d argue that the specifics, ultimately, don’t matter that much. I can’t fathom how Herculean a task it must be to be hired to write a screenplay that encompasses this much history, and I respect the amount of work that screenwriter Beau Willimon presumably had to do to fashion any kind of sense out of this much history, but the specifics don’t matter if you can’t make them compelling. Mary Queen of Scots is almost entirely devoid of texture and filled to the brim with text, treaties, meetings and other bits and bobs of decision-making chaff. Most of the characters have no personality to speak of, just a goal in mind and a status to uphold.

This is coupled with the fact that the rest of the film very much pushes in on the high drama that’s inherent to the material. At the halfway mark, Mary Queen of Scots becomes a prurient WB drama full of nubile, horny young people cuckolding each other and stabbing each other in the back. You need one to get to the other, I suppose, but the most staid and buttoned-down elements of Mary Queen of Scots are so unbelievably dull that they threaten to sink the whole thing. This version offers an updated and perhaps modernized take on events — there are hints of a gender non-binary character, not to mention Darnley’s overt homosexuality — that plays it surprisingly coy for much of the film, but at the very least this updated version brings in a few new ideas, even if they feel mostly underexploited.

It’s too bad, because whenever Mary Queen of Scots gets the opportunity to breathe a little, it can be pretty good. The dialogue scenes that go for more than a minute give the performers the chance to flex a little bit, though it’s hard to argue that an unrecognizable Margot Robbie does the most flexing. Spotty and scarred with a hay-like shock of red hair, Robbie sticks by the “go big or go home” maxim of screen acting. It’s a big, outré performance in a movie that has no space for such things — though the final scene in which Mary and Elizabeth finally meet is easily the film’s best.

Costume dramas like this one had their heyday in the 1960s and ’70s — in fact, there’s already been a Mary, Queen of Scots movie in 1971 starring Vanessa Redgrave and Glenda Jackson — when the movies offered a scope and spectacle that TV did not. They moved to TV sometime later, when TV could offer miniseries-running time for creators to parade around their wealth of research over titanic six-hour runtimes. The 2018 Mary Queen of Scots finds itself wedged uncomfortably in the middle, trying to tell a story that has both breadth and scope and intimacy. It achieves none of those things. It’s just more hurried Wikipedia filmmaking. ■

Mary Queen of Scots opens in theatres on Friday, Dec 14. Watch the trailer here: