Mary Queen of Scots

Bit of a disappointment this – Saorsie Ronan is perfectly cast as the young Queen returned from France to claim her throne from her half-brother but despite her full commitment to the script, you can’t help noticing everyone’s talking nonsense. 

Beau Willimon scripted this – he’s the creator of House of Cards and the George Clooney starrer The Ides of March – but he’s gone full cod-Shakespeare and that’s a terrible thing, especially with the knowingly post-modern zingers of The Favourite out at the same time.

In attempting to show the twisting politics and bloodlines, the interplay of loyalties and religious allegiances, this script gets hopelessly tangled and can’t summon any tension. Like a 16th century Heat, our protagonists are kept apart – Mary in various chilly-looking Scottish castles, her cousin Elizabeth (Margot Robbie) in the palaces of London.

It’s supposed to work – here are two strong women having to battle the legions of beardy men (David Tenant’s John Knox looks and sounds like he’s got a badger on his face) to get their voices heard. Shame I didn’t understand what they actually wanted. By the time an envoy (Adrian Lester – there are several black faces in the cast, which is good, but noticeable) hoofs it up to Scotland with yet another message, all drama is lost.

Directed by Josie Rourke, there are of course some very decent moments to behold, ones perhaps more suited to edgy theatre than to a handsomely budgeted movie.

Rourke’s first film is ambitious in trying to develop themes of gender fluidity, pitting the yearning demands of womanhood against male arrogance and entitlement. It’s a film about personal desire and fulfilment as much as it is about political power and duty, with Elizabeth shunning the chance to produce an heir or find love and promising to live as a man, even while she entreats Mary to keep marrying various suitors.

The to and fro of gender and power, however, fails to find a dramatic outlet. I was never sure what was at stake emotionally – other than the throne, obviously  – but what sort of rulers were these Queens, what did they believe, why did Mary want to unite the Scottish and English thrones,  and what did their subjects think of them? We miss any wider perspective and, when it eventually comes around, the ending feels rushed: ‘and, a few years later, she chopped her cousin’s head off…’

I can’t help feeling the film should have focused on one incident, picked one powerful, pivotal moment or, though Margot Robbie assailed by a pox which looks like she’s just put her head in bowl of Rice Krispies certainly isn’t one of them.

For all its playfulness with history and gender, there’s no real sense of fun or humour here, nor, despite a bout of drunken gay sex between Dudley and the pan-sexual Rizzo and the sight of yet another British female monarch getting some tongue action, does it sizzle. I did like Max Richter’s score, though.