mary queen of scots throne
Saoirse Ronan stars as Mary Stuart in MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS, a Focus Features release. Credit: Liam Daniel / Focus Features.

Mary Queen of Scots is a new film starring Saoirse Ronan (Lady Bird, Brooklyn) and Margot Robbie (I, Tonya, The Wolf of Wall Street). The movie tells the story of Mary Stuart as she attempts to overthrow her cousin Elizabeth I, the Queen of England. It debuted at the 2018 AFI Fest to positive reviews.

Ultimately, this movie has some very strong moments, but there are so many other problems that it never comes together to create a cohesive film. Some may be able to get past the convoluted narrative, thin character development, and slow pacing to enjoy the historical melodrama, although it is unlikely to connect with most audiences.

One of the biggest issues with the movie is that it is so hectic. There are so many connections and so much going on that it becomes nearly impossible to keep up. It becomes easy to forget who is who, and by the end of the film, most will have already given up on trying to remember. The movie also frequently jumps through time. At one point, a period of twenty-five years passes off-screen, with little explanation given of what happened in-between and no visible difference in the characters.

mary queen of scots war
Ian Hart stars as Lord Maitland, Jack Lowden as Lord Darnley, Saoirse Ronan as Mary Stuart and James McArdle as Earl of Moray in MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS, a Focus Features release.Credit: Liam Daniel / Focus Features.

There are other little inconsistencies found throughout, particularly in terms of characterization. The film often begins subplots with the supporting characters that are never fully-formed. There is one subplot involving one of Elizabeth’s ambassadors that is particularly unresolved. Other characters, such as William Cecil and John Knox, aren’t developed well, either.

The lead characters aren’t particularly compelling either. Mary Stuart is never made to be particularly likable. Rather than being established as a hero of her people, she instead feels like a stuck-up and whiny member of the ruling elite that is upset because she doesn’t get her way. The best word to describe her is petty, and it is hard for the audience to get behind a character that behaves as such.

Elizabeth I just isn’t given enough screen time. Although the focus is obviously on Mary Stuart (the movie is named for her, after all), it would have been interesting to see more of Elizabeth’s side of the story. This would have allowed the rivalry to be expanded upon and resulted in a more dramatic and exciting story overall.

mary queen of scots servant
Gemma Chan stars as Bess of Hardwick in MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS, a Focus Features release. Credit: Liam Daniel / Focus Features.

The film struggles with pacing too. The movie is two hours and four minutes long, and although there is some interest to be had in the story, it moves along at a quite slow pace, feeling like it just keeps going and going. It doesn’t help that the movie constantly feels like a melodrama, rather than a war epic or even a political thriller, either of which would have been more effective. And why are there so many steamy sex scenes?

Perhaps most frustrating about the writing, though, is that the film feels the need to start at the end. At this point, this is just a tired trope. The purpose of this trope is to try to build suspense in the audience. This strategy sometimes works, but fails miserably in this case. The issue? This movie is based on historical facts, so most people know the conclusion before seeing the film (or can find it online in a snap). As a result, the movie just feels anticlimactic.

The film’s score also jumps out as detrimental to the whole. Honestly, the movie would have been significantly better had the score been replaced or removed entirely. The sounds are just too bright for the film. In a movie that is so dark, involving constant shifts in power, murders, and war between countries, the music should be gloomy and ominous. That is certainly not the case. On its own, the score is musically complex — it just doesn’t fit the film at all.

mary queen of scots elizabeth
(l-r) Grace Molony stars as Dorothy Stafford, Margot Robbie stars as Queen Elizabeth I and Georgia Burnell as Kate Carey in MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS, a Focus Features release.Credit: Parisa Tag / Focus Features.

The quality of the actors’ performances are shockingly questionable. Neither Ronan nor Robbie is bad, but this is a step down from their respective career best performances last year. They needed to do more with their roles. Each had one or two really big monologues, and instead of hamming it up, they play them subtly. That doesn’t work for this type of movie. The supporting cast is surprisingly good, though. Guy Pearce, David Tennant, and Jack Lowden are all quite strong.

That being said, the film certainly excels in its visuals. The cinematography is strong, with some beautiful shots of Scotland throughout. The production design, especially the costuming, also stands out. The filmmakers did a very good job of capturing the era. This is perhaps one of the strongest contenders in the hairstyling and makeup field to come out this year.

Although it is competent in technical terms, Mary Queen of Scots is largely a misfire. It disappoints on multiple levels, wasting a strong premise and a great cast on a mostly mediocre movie.

Mary Queen of Scots is now playing in select theaters. It expands December 21.

By Sean Boelman

Sean is a film student, aspiring filmmaker, and life-long cinephile. For as long as he can remember, he has always loved film, but he credits the film Pan's Labyrinth as having started his love of film as art. Sean enjoys watching many types of films, although some personal favorite genres include dramatic comedies, romantic comedies, heist films, and art horror.

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