“Who’s Queen?” says the powerfully petulant Queen Elizabeth in Blackadder. The same question runs – less memorably and less entertainingly – through director Josie Rourke’s Mary Queen of Scots. Is it the beautiful upstart Mary, arriving on the shores of an unsteady Scotland? Or is it Elizabeth, seemingly insecure in England? Politics is played out in parallel in the dark castles of Scotland and in the oak-tabled halls of England. But amid the personalities, something’s amiss.
Young Mary Stuart returns as a widow from France with a claim not only to the throne of Scotland but with unsettling aspirations for England. Her cousin Elizabeth, immured in a stifling world of self-doubt and stiff-collared advisers, is conflicted. Is Mary an ally or an enemy? A female with fellow-feeling or a sinister sister waiting to seize the crown? As alliances become rebellions in Scotland, Mary’s own future isn’t certain. But Elizabeth knows a reckoning is coming.
And so do we, if we know a bit of history. And if we are paying attention during the snowy slo-mo at the start of the film as Mary walks calmly to her execution. Yet it’s not this foresight that robs Mary Queen of Scots of its impact. It’s that the film fails to imbue either woman with any sense of regal power. Saoirse Ronan (Ladybird, Brooklyn) brings to Mary the lively sense of a living, breathing person. Margot Robbie (I, Tonya) is beautifully brittle as the unbeautiful Elizabeth.
But Josie Rourke’s film places both women in settings of unempowered claustrophobia. Confined within their courts and castles, they appear to be at the mercy of men who may or may not have their back. Many a Shakespeare play plays out its power-games in such settings. It can work. Yet here it’s undermined by scene after scene of Mary and Elizabeth frittering away their time on favourites, fancies and foibles. Mary dances with her ladies-in-waiting, flirts with a handsome noble. Elizabeth sits alone creating paper decorations.
Mary rides out with her courtiers, the Scottish scenery lending a majestically rugged grandeur. Elizabeth is surrounded with black-clad statesmen in august, gothic-stoned rooms. But power by implication is unconvincing when neither woman does anything powerful. Ronan and Robbie are fantastic actors. But the script gives us no chance to see them as leaders, or to believe why anyone would see them as such.
Rather, Rourke’s overplayed parallel approach – repeatedly contrasting Mary and Elizabeth – emphasises the emotional and the personal not the power and the politics. Mary gives birth; Elizabeth, intercut, is seen in the same posture, fretting away with paper flowers. Sure, it spells out Elizabeth’s childlessness and the need for a successor. But the scene plays more on the psychology of the moment. In an age of female empowerment, Mary Queen of Scots misses the chance to resonate with a key issue of our time. Ironic that the score contains an unfulfilled anachronistic blast of Handel’s Zadok the Priest, without ever getting to the full-throttle climax of it.
It’s fabulously filmed though. Cinematographer John Mathieson (Gladiator, Logan) makes gorgeous use of landscapes - mountains, valleys and surf-sprayed coastlines - and lush interiors, Oxford’s Divinity School and Gloucester Cathedral doubling as courts and cloisters. Equally wonderful is the mellifluous, beautifully arch voice of Guy Pearce as William Cecil, Elizabeth’s loyal adviser: it’s a masterclass in the art - all too rare – of conveying character through voice. Plaudits too to a straggle-bearded David Tennant as the firebrand cleric John Knox, denouncing Mary with febrile ferocity.
A cracking cast and cinematography certainly make this a cinematic movie. But Ronan and Robbie, with all their immense talent, are given little enough to do. And when the inevitable – if unhistoric – meeting comes, secreted away in a remote wash-house, you know a would-be poetic conceit is not working when you want to shout: 'Move the washing away! She’s right there!' When two monarchs can’t find each other for two or three minutes in a small room festooned with linen, it’s an oddly apt metaphor for their powerlessness. And it goes on for so long you start to think, unfairly, of other scenes with washing that worked perfectly well…The Greatest Showman, Richard Lester’s The Three Musketeers…