Film Review – Mary Queen of Scots (2018)

by Nick Kush
Mary Queen of Scots

Any time you have both Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie in a film together, it’s bound to be watchable on some level; these are two of the best actresses working today, after all! However, “watchable” is the best that Mary Queen of Scots ever becomes as it fails to inject much vibrance and feeling into this possibly classic story.

The following review will be spoiler free.


Directed By: Josie Rourke

Written By: Beau Willimon and John Guy (based on the book Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart by)

Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Margot Robbie, Jack Lowden, Joe Alwyn, David Tennant, Guy Pearce, Gemma Chan, Ismael Cruz Córdova, and Adrian Lester

Queen at the age of 16 and a widow at age 18, Mary Stuart (Ronan) refuses to remarry and instead decides to reclaim her place as the rightful queen of Scotland. But both Scotland and England fall under the rule of Elizabeth I (Robbie). With pressure coming from all sides, the two women must figure out how to balance marriage and independence to continue their reigns and save their people. But whatever choice they make, it’ll come with a great cost.

Waiting for the Right Moment

As with many other movies over time, Mary Queen of Scots was in development hell for quite some time, finally making it to theaters after initially being schedule to start shooting all the way back in 2007 with Scarlett Johansson as the titular character. (That would have been a VERY different movie!)

In 2012, Ronan was finally cast as Mary Stuart (back when she was actually age appropriate for the role), yet nothing else for the film materialized until 2017 when Robbie was cast as Elizabeth I. However, this might have been exactly what the Mary Queen of Scots’ producers were hoping for. Think about it: Margot Robbie entered a new stratosphere with I, Tonya and Ronan became an overnight sensation with Lady Bird. Two buzzy leads in a prestige period piece is a serious recipe for success, especially in a time when mid-budget film continues to struggle.

Mary Queen of scots

image via CinemaBlend

Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie are Great as Expected

Ronan and Robbie are sensational. It’s as simple as that. The central idea of Mary Queen of Scots covers the plight of women with Mary Stuart looking to keep her power while seeking a relationship for strategic and romantic purposes and Elizabeth I remaining staunch in her independence (to her own detriment) in order to keep her throne. It’s fascinating to see these two work in their own ways. Each considers all options and outcomes before committing to an action, yet their thought processes are totally and utterly different. Josie Rourke was incredibly wise to show these two powerful women as mirror images of each other; it’s the best way to describe either performance with respect to the other.

I’m such a fan of how Margot Robbie continues to allow herself to look ugly in her films. Her appearance deteriorates drastically throughout Mary Queen of Scots (with the help of some amazing prosthetics) to the point where she ceases to look like her beautiful self in a fancy dress. It’s a true transformation with many layers to it. If you needed any more validation of Robbie’s gifts, Mary Queen of Scots puts all issues to bed. (Although I’d probably classify you as unnecessarily stubborn if you were still doubting Robbie to this day.)

And as Ronan continues to mature, we’re going to continue to see her take roles that show her in a different light. I’d like to think that Mary Queen of Scots is the start of a new chapter in her career.

Mary Queen of Scots

image via The Wrap

A Lot of Sitting and Talking or Standing and Talking

Mary Queen of Scots suffers from what I’m coining the “Phantom Menace Effect.” It’s the idea that a movie — no matter how creative or intricate it might be — suffers from an ungodly amount of unimaginative expositional dumping which ultimately ruins much of the film’s charm. While there are many defenders of The Phantom Menace out there, many of those same people will still admit that the film has a serious pacing problem that zaps the film of most of its energy. The same idea works for Mary Queen of Scots

Mary Queen of Scots is comprised of many scenes where many characters sit and talk, only to give way to scenes where characters stand and talk. Frankly, the movie is a bit of a bore. Even though Ronan and Robbie are quite captivating in their roles, they are surrounded by unimaginative scene structure.

After watching Mary Queen of Scots, my mind immediately went to Darkest Hour as an example of what Mary Queen of Scots could have been. That connection is even funnier as the two films share the same producers. Although it’s far from a perfect movie, Darkest Hour has an excess of style and cleverness to its dialogue scenes that make it engaging on some superficial level. Joe Wright has always had an infectious sense of style, and he makes Darkest Hour hum despite some of its flaws. Mary Queen of Scots is mostly flat with its aversion to juicy back-and-forths between its talented actors.

Mary Queen of scots

image via US Magazine

Mary Queen of Scots Focuses on the Wrong Things

Though it’s interesting to see how the monarchy used marriage as a tool for power, it gets a bit tiring when combined with the lackluster style discussed above. Even more frustrating is the refusal to dive deep into some of the periphery elements of this story. Margot Robbie is most fascinating performance and character here, though her screen time couldn’t be more than ten minutes. Clearly from the title of the movie alone, Robbie is operating in a supporting role, but this movie needs more of her. She possesses most of the energy in this dull film. And when she isn’t on the screen, I waited, hopeful that she would return soon. Her lack of screen time was probably by design, but it’s the movie’s fault that I wasn’t distracted by its other pieces.

I must also note the performance of Jack Lowden as one of Mary Queen of Scots more sensational bits. In the role of Henry Darnley, Lowden is incredibly duplicitous. He’s a prisoner to his own devices and arguably the juiciest character this movie has to offer. He’s what this movie COULD have been with a few recalculations.

mary queen of scots

image via Yahoo

Final Thoughts

Mary Queen of Scots has all the elements for a wonderful period piece: a great cast, a fascinating time period, delicious subject matter, you name it. And yet, nothing is ever spectacular (maybe except for Margot Robbie), leaving the film as simply efficient. Competency is something we should expect, not praise.

I still think there’s enough here to make this film worthwhile in some manner, however. Maybe it’s my fixation with both Ronan and Robbie that puts in this film in my wheelhouse. I wouldn’t be the first to succumb to their charms.

Grade: C+

Mary Queen of scots

image via IndieWire

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Katherine Anne Baxter February 22, 2019 - 6:19 am

Was desperate to see this movie as have always been intrigued by Mary Queen of Scots from an early age. What a huge disappointment !!! Actors were outstanding but oh dear the film/storyline was painful too watch. For such an amazing historic period to be treated so badly I’m stunned. Storyline cut and clipped beyond imagination … don’t waste your money on this one… sorry

shehannemoore December 24, 2018 - 5:48 am

I haven’t seen it yet but I would say there’s a hell of a lot of films being made today that bore round in circles, meaningless scenes going nowhere and the real meat and heat of the story overlooked. Nothing spectacular. Competent, colour by numbers, yes but that’s it. I have been a huge movie fan all my life but recently????

Nick Kush December 24, 2018 - 10:31 am

It’s definitely tough sometimes! But for me, it’s so worth it when I stumble upon an indie movie that I love that I wouldn’t have seen without taking a chance on some smaller movies! 😁

Nick Kush December 23, 2018 - 7:33 pm

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