2018 is the year filmmakers decided to school their audiences on the Queens of England. In the archly funny The Favourite, a couple of women battle to become Queen Anne’s confidante and proxy. On the flip side, Mary Queen of Scots, is an unfunny battle royale to be the sovereign of the whole of England and Scotland, with armies deployed and lots of palace intrigue. It stars two actresses at the top of their game. Saoirse Ronan plays Mary, and Margot Robbie is Elizabeth I. But sadly, while both of their performances are strong, it’s not enough to lift an otherwise poorly framed history lesson of a script.
We meet Mary when she is returning to Scotland from France where she was married to the now dead king. She’s come home to take her rightful place on the Scottish throne, and she also has a claim to the same throne on which Elizabeth I sits. And the whole succession thing in is the air, making it imperative that she marry again and have a child. And since Elizabeth is Queen she has some say in who Mary can marry and sends one of her favorites up. But when that doesn’t work out Mary marries a Scottish lord from Elizabeth’s court and has a son. The film cuts between Mary and Elizabeth and manufactures a meeting so the two of them are face to face. And while it is beautiful to watch, the history and general narrative is a muddle. There is a gay storyline, that may have some historical truth to it, and there are also black and Asian people in the court, which is definitely not historically authentic. It often felt too much like the filmmakers were trying to give this historical drama of the 16th century 21st century sensibilities, and it just doesn’t work.
Both actresses turn in great performances, but while Mary commands the film’s title, it is Elizabeth who is the more interesting character. The film is beautiful to watch, all those beautiful costumes and jewels, and Elizabeth’s physical evolution is fascinating. But as a story, it just doesn’t grab or inform. It may, however, make you want to go home and grab a history book to fill in the canyon of plot holes. If you only see one English royalty movie this season, make it The Favourite. And stream Cate Blanchett’s Oscar winning Elizabeth if you need a Mary vs Elizabeth refresher.