Lavish British costume drama remains one of the most enduringly popular genres, especially when it focuses on historically drawn sovereign spats, real-life games of thrones and conniving courtly conspiracies.
The spotlight here is thrown on that time-honoured 16th-century rivalry between royal cousins Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan) and Queen Elizabeth (Margot Robbie). Making her feature debut as director, Josie Rourke presents an unevenly balanced juggling act of fact and faction, which she describes as “a Renaissance version of Heat”.
John Guy’s acclaimed biography Queen of Scots: the True Life of Mary Stuart is the inspiration for the film, and it’s ambitiously adapted by scriptwriter Beau Willimon (who helped develop Netflix’s House of Cards). He gives the material a keen feminist slant, while bolting on contemporary diversity values, upfront sexuality and clear allusions to current fake news debates. But there’s little spark or energy flowing through all the regal shenanigans to label this latest version of events as anything more than a worthy journey through the usual bog-standard monarch mayhem.
Concentrating on the seven-year period between 1561 and 1568, the film charts Catholic Mary’s return to Scotland following her brief tenure as queen consort of France, setting in motion a tug of war with Elizabeth over her entitlement to the English throne. Scotland at this time was in the throes of the Reformation and a widening Protestant/Catholic split. A husband for Mary seems the best chance for stability, but her choice of Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden) does little to help matters.
Mary becomes pregnant (with the future King James VI), but the bisexual Darnley proves to be weak and a drunk, and becomes an integral part of a complicated plot to ensure Mary never claims her true birthright. Despite their best efforts, Mary and Elizabeth struggle to assert themselves in a male-dominated world and become locked in an ever-increasing political battle of strong wills.
There’s court intrigue to be had, of course, but little of it is actually intriguing. Key historical figures are grossly exaggerated or criminally undervalued: Darnley is painted as a hustler, pure and simple, Mary’s half-brother, the Earl of Moray (James McArdle), is a loathsome opportunist; her head of security and third husband, the Earl of Bothwell (Martin Compston), is a lapdog; and most startling of all, fire-and-brimstone spouting reformation leader John Knox (an unrecognisable David Tennant in hilarious Nostradamus drag) is seen as responsible for the gross misinformation campaign that has caused Mary to be forever maligned.
While inveterate virgin Elizabeth is losing her looks to smallpox and sacrificing her lover Robert Dudley (Joe Alwyn) to the North/South split cause, Mary seems to be achieving everything her heart desires, including producing an heir. In one scene after another, often with the same actions repeated by the two actresses, Rourke contrasts their plights. However, the conceit gets old pretty fast and becomes a parody of itself in the post-birth sequence, where Mary lies exhausted in bloodstained sheets, while Elizabeth stares at arts and crafts red ribbons between her legs. Nuance and subtlety are the two qualities sadly in short supply here.
There is still something about this Mary, though, and that’s Saoirse Ronan’s beguiling central performance. She fleshes out her role with an insouciant fearlessness, regal hauteur and coded modernity – and a lack of distracting ageing make-up – that makes you buy into her majestic entitlement.
On the other hand, Margot Robbie is saddled with the pantomime-dame look, and the worst prosthetic nose since Nicole Kidman’s in The Hours. The fact Robbie manages to bring a quiet dignity to a role that’s part talcum powder, part flame-coloured fright wig is a miracle. Once more, a meeting scene between the two is devised even though it never happened in real life. And once again it seems superficially immaterial to the main events.
Despite paying lip service to the zeitgeist, Mary Queen of Scots doesn’t upend the genre like the viciously irreverent The Favourite. Neither is it as involving as Wolf Hall nor as joyful as The Crown. Instead, it hews close to those other screen versions of past history, the Vanessa Redgrave/Glenda Jackson 1971 film Mary, Queen of Scots and Elizabeth: the Golden Age (2007).
With its chopping-block bookends, shortbread-tin highland vistas, gloomily claustrophobic castle action and minimal sword-clashing battles, this tale of divided loyalties and duelling rulers feels like a quaint museum piece, and one that struggles to maintain the interest.
Mary Queen of Scots is released in cinemas on Friday 18 January
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