‘Mary Queen of Scots’ review: Saoirse Ronan brings strength, innocence to royal biopic

‘Mary Queen of Scots’ 

Directed by Josie Rourke

Starring Saoirse Ronan, Margot Robbie, Jack Lowden

Rated R

Few individuals in Scottish history loom as large as Mary Queen of Scots, whose story is rife with all the elements required of a rich drama.

The 16th century monarch, whose strong claim to the English throne made her an existential threat to her cousin Queen Elizabeth I, spent her short life navigating the intense factionalism tearing apart her nation, a series of personal tragedies, the constant mortal danger posed by Scotland’s neighbor to the south and, finally, years of imprisonment before execution.

It would be hard to render this in anything less than compelling fashion. The new biopic "Mary Queen of Scots," starring Saoirse Ronan as Mary and Margot Robbie as Elizabeth, is most successful when it illuminates the fundamental, unshakable commitment to home and birthright that drove the teenage Mary to return from a life in French exile into this maelstrom.

The film, directed by Josie Rourke and adapted by Beau Willimon (creator of the U.S. "House of Cards") from a biography by John Guy, has the great benefit of Ronan’s particular evocation of strength mixed with innocence. Her Mary is simultaneously determined and sure of her destiny, possessed with a steadfast commitment to seeing it through, and a young person in many respects like anyone else, seeking love, happiness and fulfillment. 

But Willimon had an easier time streamlining behind-the-scenes political drama in present-day Washington, D.C., while Rourke’s direction too often undersells the intense drama. The scheming and hand-wringing on display in the courts of Mary and Elizabeth becomes muddled and repetitive, lurching from frenzied denunciation to whispered notes of concern and despair without much in the way of an arc.

It should be much more gripping than it is. The movie only really enlivens in its portrayals of the most particularly savage and gruesome moments of the story, such as the murder of the queen’s consort David Rizzio (Ismael Cruz Córdova) right in front of her, which simultaneously illustrate the horrific obstacles facing a queen dealing with scheming, sneering men.

The movie is otherwise pretty, with Rourke and cinematographer John Mathieson taking great care to compose images that might have been taken straight out of contemporary Renaissance painting, but somehow too shallow.

And it takes some historical liberties, including in the way it depicts Mary’s reaction to a personal betrayal by her husband, Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden), that seem designed less for the purpose of poetic license and more to soften the edges of these figures so they are palatable for a present-day audience.

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