There are multiple murders, illicit affairs, international intrigue and extremely problematic noses in “Mary Queen of Scots,” and yet, somehow, it’s dull, dull, dull.
Josie Rourke’s stiff direction, Beau Willimon’s humorless screenplay and a clunky structure that shifts between the stories of Mary in Scotland and Elizabeth in England (the two never met, although the movie imagines one encounter) doom “Mary,” which follows the title character from her return to Scotland as a teenager after a sojourn in France, to her eventual beheading, all the time fighting to be named Elizabeth I’s successor as the ruler of England and Scotland.
The movie is Team Mary all the way. She is depicted as effortlessly pretty, at one with nature and kind to everyone, including the people who betray her. As the movie progresses, it becomes clear that even those who were on Mary’s side were not on her side. Luminous Saoirse Ronan does what she can to breathe humanity into the film’s vision of boringly perfect Mary, but it’s Margot Robbie’s Elizabeth — petulant, unstable and perhaps too accustomed to being the smartest person in the room — who emerges as the livelier royal redhead, even if she gets much less screen time.
In making her first film, Rourke, whose background is in theater, presides over quite a few bold choices, ranging from Max Richter’s Philip Glass-ish score to Jenny Shircore’s bonkers hair and makeup, which envisions a penultimate scene in which Elizabeth looks almost exactly like Sideshow Bob from “The Simpsons,” if Bob borrowed Nicole Kidman’s Oscar-winning fake nose from “The Hours.”
The candlelit castle interiors are stunning, although anyone who has ever been to Edinburgh will find fault with the film’s geography, because Holyrood Palace is a popular tourist destination that looks nothing like the one in the movie. Language also is dealt with peculiarly: When Mary talks in English, we’re meant to think she’s speaking Scots, but when Elizabeth speaks English, it’s supposed to be English.
The theme of the movie is that if Mary and Elizabeth had been men, they’d have been allowed to work out the issues that separated their countries. “How did the world come to this? Wise men servicing the whims of women?” asks a court adviser. That’s a compelling idea, particularly right now, and Willimon probably is wise to stick to the language and mores of the time rather than offering a sideways, contemporary take on them like “The Favourite” does.
But that reading overlooks the complexity of the issues Mary and Elizabeth faced, particularly in the area of religion: Mary is depicted as devoutly Catholic, a faith that many of her own people viewed with suspicion, while Elizabeth was Protestant.
Maybe a smarter strategy would have been to go deep on a shorter period of Mary’s life, so we could better understand what drove her. As it is, with Mary aging over three decades during which she becomes a widow when her beloved first husband dies, becomes a widow again after the murder of her not-beloved second husband and is then forced to marry a rando dude who immediately betrays her, the main takeaway from “Mary Queen of Scots” is that this poor woman had the worst marital luck in history.