A 2018 film set centuries ago in Britain’s royal halls of power, a period piece laden with the requisite opulent costumes and set dressing, also does something new with the genre: interrogating the sexist limits on what women in this world could achieve. That movie, Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite, is about Queen Anne; it’s in theaters now and is well worth seeing. Mere weeks after that film’s release comes a similar work, this time examining two of Britain’s most significant female rulers. But while Josie Rourke’s Mary Queen of Scots is sumptuous and beautifully designed, it also (unlike The Favourite) indulges in every threadbare period-film trope.
Bow to No One blares the movie’s poster, but Rourke’s film (her debut, after a storied theater career) exhibits no such defiance toward the clichés of its genre. Written by Beau Willimon (the creator of House of Cards and co-writer of The Ides of March), it’s a potted history of the 1560s political skirmish between Mary (Saoirse Ronan), the Queen of Scotland, and her cousin Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie), the Queen of England. Yet the story takes certain dramatic liberties with their relationship. Willimon, who has never met a subject he couldn’t radically simplify, frames their rivalry as two sides of a coin without making a diligent effort to explain what makes them so different.
The major divide between the cousins was religious in nature. Elizabeth was a Protestant and Mary a Catholic—a split that was the underlying cause of so many political and military battles of the era. Mary, who was raised in France and arrived in Scotland to rule the country at age 19, was championed as a potential Catholic heir to the English throne, but she was despised by Scottish (and English) Protestants. That issue plays its part in Mary Queen of Scots, but largely in the background; the theological tension is embodied by the character of John Knox (David Tennant), the founder of the Church of Scotland, who speaks in sexist, anti-Catholic screeds and constantly demands Mary’s resignation.
Pushed to the fore is the notion that Mary and Elizabeth were both doomed by their womanhood and the fickle, squabbling men who crowded their courts. Ronan plays Mary as confident but opaque, a leader willing to hear counsel on the delicate politics of her country, but just as prone to rash, sometimes disastrous, decision making. She dominates the movie’s action, riding around the country and pondering whether to take the politic Robert Dudley (Joe Alwyn) or the rakish Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden) as a husband. Elizabeth, meanwhile, is confined to her court and resistant to the idea of marriage because she knows her consort might end up seizing control of her throne.
Some have compared the film’s structure to Michael Mann’s Heat, which alternates between two figures on opposite sides of a conflict. But Mary becomes the dominant character, given that the movie is so invested in her various romantic dramas. Elizabeth, who remains steadfast in her public image as a virgin leader indebted to no man, gets little to do besides confab with her adviser William Cecil (Guy Pearce) and survive a particularly nasty bout of smallpox. Nevertheless, Robbie’s is the more compelling performance; with her little screen time, she still manages to convey a real sense of resentment over Mary’s status as a more traditional queen (one who marries and bears an heir).
No historical record of such interpersonal bitterness exists, nor of the charged face-to-face confrontation that eventually plays out between Mary and Elizabeth (this film’s version of Heat’s diner conversation between Al Pacino and Robert De Niro). Mary Queen of Scots is a Tudor drama for the modern viewer, boiling down the arcane details of centuries-old diplomacy to a personal beef between two massive celebrities. “Your gifts will be your downfall,” Elizabeth tells Mary ruefully when they meet, commenting on her beauty. “Should you murder me, remember you murder your sister ... and your queen,” Mary shoots back, a crackling bit of one-upmanship that rings hollow.
That showdown, filled with punchy lines that heavily underline Willimon’s broad feminist allegory, is a perfect example of where Mary Queen of Scots goes wrong. It has two fascinating leads (though Ronan feels unusually lost as Mary, failing to imbue the role with her typical charisma), but they’ve been handed unsatisfying, poorly contextualized characters. The film aims to score broad points against the sexism that surrounded both leaders, but spends the majority of Mary’s story on the tiresome romantic intrigue that dogged her later in life (a love triangle involving Darnley and a courtier named David Rizzio).
Mary Queen of Scots is a tawdry soap opera that insists it’s an intelligent political thriller. It reduces two of the most consequential women in British history to their enmity, even though they both had many other accomplishments to their names. Rourke’s staging is often gorgeous to behold—the costuming bursts with color, and the sets, particularly Mary’s dank Scottish court, are striking and unusual. But this movie is little more than a vibrant-looking tableau, a two-dimensional take on an intricate piece of history. It’s a tale that’s been told better before, and Willimon’s modern updates are less enlightened than they initially seem.