“Mary Queen of Scots” Review : A well-acted period piece struggles to find anything to say
Despite what the film industry has led us to believe, historical biopics are not just an occasion for costume designers to get Oscar nominations. When they are well-made, they can be a mirror into our own modern-day society, a human exploration of personalities that we’ve only seen in history textbooks, a way to think about the future through the past. The way we are made to study history in school often makes us forget that it is more than remembering dates in case a surprise test comes up: cinema helps to fill the gaps in the knowledge of who our ancestors were. In some cases, even historical accuracy can become secondary; that is, as long as the artistic intentions of the writer justify taking liberties. History is not just dates and genealogies most of us were forced to remember in primary school anymore — on a film screen, it is about humanity, about how we were, what we are and what we will be.
Lately, period pieces have not been as popular as they used to be. Some historical biopics in the last few years have managed to get some critical acclaim, such as Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk last year or Damien Chazelle’s First Man even more recently, but they were often set relatively close to us in terms of time period. The older the setting, the harder it is to reach accuracy, the more expensive the production becomes: fans of older time periods just had to wait for Hollywood to take interest in these eras again.
In this context, the first few trailers of Mary Queen of Scots hinted that these prayers could be answered soon enough. Starring two recently Oscar-nominated acting powerhouses (Saoirse Ronan as the titular Mary and Margot Robbie as Queen Elizabeth I), showcasing beautiful sets, somewhat unconventional cinematography and a confirmed theater director at the helm of the project, history aficionados were in their right to expect a quality insight into the complex personal and political relationships that bloomed in 16th century Scotland and England. Unfortunately, the end result, while far from being awful, doesn’t live up to its promises. The performances and the costumes are there just as promised, but the depth isn’t. The film neither commits to historical accuracy nor to exploring the characters on the screen — and by refusing to choose between being about either things, it ends up being essentially a film about nothing.
Despite the marketing heavily emphasizing Margot Robbie’s involvement, Mary and Elizabeth do not share the same importance in the film, and their promised rivality is barely touched upon. While the choice of putting the Queen of England in the background might be offputting at first, it could have given the opportunity for Mary to truly shine.
Ronan gives an overall decent performance, but we are not given much reason to care about the titular Queen of Scots. Following her character arc rather feels like we are watching a writer go through a checklist of various historical events rather than seeing a real person navigate through life. The film often purposefully avoids accuracy, which should have perhaps given the opportunity to make Mary a more relatable figure for a modern audience. In the end, the choices made in the script are hard to justify. I have nothing against sex scenes in historical films (one sentence I never expected to write today, but the truth nevertheless), but I do take some offense against them when they only feel like a cheap attempt to distract us from the lack of depth plaguing the rest of the film. Mary isn’t much of anything. She talks less like a person than as a half-formed political agenda.
The director’s previous theater experience gives the film a heavy emphasis on scenes of dialogue, which could have worked if only this dialogue was worth listening to. Mary’s words are often far from the complexity one would expect to hear from a sovereign, and it doesn’t help that she inexplicably switches from English to French mid-sentence in half of her conversations. I can excuse Ronan’s accent (even though the real Mary of Scots was raised in France since she was five, and therefore should not have a Scottish accent) — I can’t excuse a total disregard of how bilingualism actually works under the pretense of making a character seem like she’s saying more than she actually is.
I would not have had any problem with the film exploring only the political side of Mary’s personality if it had been fully developed — unfortunately, it neither commits to a political nor a personal exploration of its main character. Once again, the film ends up landing in this strange in-between, and the unfortunate result is a hollow depiction of the woman it is supposed to make us care about.
Fortunately, some other characters do occasionally give us a reason to care. If the film’s marketing heavily emphasized the promise of a rivalry between Mary and her cousin Elizabeth, it is certainly because of the knowledge that seeing this film would have been way a way more appealing experience than the one we actually got. Elizabeth is certainly the most interesting part of the film. The exploration of her personality remains minimal, but the feeling we get from it is a sense of mystery rather than the nothingness inspired by Mary. The deeper we get into the film, the more Robbie becomes unrecognizable, a shadow of a human being. By fully committing herself to a role that doesn’t give her much to work with, the actress gives the film a new spark. There are some things to take issue with, such as the film’s insistance on defining maternity as something that Elizabeth regrets. Historical accounts show that she just truly did not want children, and in a film that is supposed to be about women fighting both against and in the context of a patriarchal world, inherently linking womanhood with the will to have children seems rather out of place and simplistic. Despite these somewhat clumsy choices regarding Elizabeth’s narrative, she proves to be an intriguing character that I wish I could have known about in a better film.
Mary Queen of Scots is not a disaster by any terms, or at least not in the classical sense of the term. The beautiful costumes and locations sometimes almost make it tempting to forget about the shallowness of the film. However, the more the film goes on, the harder its hollowness is to ignore. Josie’s debut is slow-paced, full of quiet scenes that would have been adequate for a film with more to say. Unfortunately, despite some good efforts from the cast and cinematographer, what we get in the end is easy to forget as soon as the credits start to roll. There are hints at what could have been, with the inclusion of actors of color in white roles as well as some gay characters; however, their treatment is often at the very least clumsy, immediately erasing any point that could have been made. Maybe in another world could this biopic have been everything it wanted to be — but in this one, it is unfortunately doomed to remain a kind of nothing of a film.