Mary Queen of Scots

REVIEW: The Queen’s Nose: The cast are upstaged by their own make-up in this soapy historical melodrama from theatre-director Josie Rourke.

The pedants have had a field day picking holes in Mary Queen of Scots, a revisionist take on the famous 16th Century rivalry between British monarchs. With its lavish vistas of dramatic Scottish countryside and beautifully staged recreations of Royal Court life, it looks like many a handsome-yet-stuffy Sunday evening period drama, but the old-school visuals belie many quirks – of casting, dialogue, and anachronism – that would probably have seemed very daring had not Yorgos Lanthimos’ far superior The Favourite emerged in cinemas a couple of weeks earlier, leaving poor old Mary seeming staid by comparison.

Nevertheless, the only people who turn to movies for their history lessons are teenagers looking for a short-cut in their A-level revision. Lucky for them, Mary… repackages this lengthy constitutional crisis as a kind of teen soap opera, spicing up arcane political shenanigans with a little mild smut and a lot of emotional outbursts.

Mary herself is written as a sort of early Twitter activist, the sort of severely woke paragon of tolerance who is apt to proclaim at length on the importance of religious freedom amongst her subjects and not-at-all inclined towards judgment when her caddish husband is found in bed with another man. When she’s not holding forth on such matters, she hangs around her bedchamber with her three maidservants, sitting cross-legged with them on the floor and discussing boys, like a teenager in an American sitcom.

Ronan’s Mary makes her demands with the same sort of arsey entitlement as somebody who complains in restuarants

Saoirse Ronan struggles to play Mary with any sort of consistency, battling a script by Beau Willimon that seems undecided about whether she’s supposed to be a fiercely righteous leader and superior intellect to her scheming courtiers or a naïve pawn in their machinations. In the climactic moments, when she encounters Queen Elizabeth, (a meeting, the pedants will reassure you, that never happened) she makes her demands with the same sense of arsey entitlement as somebody who complains in restaurants. Occasionally, she even appears to glance through the camera and into the audience; a sideways glance like Eric Morecambe would give in one of Ernie’s plays, and for much the same reason.

Margot Robbie, despite delivering some of the best false nose work since Orson Welles died, isn’t given much else to work with in her few scenes as Elizabeth, although she does manage to imbue a sense of tragedy and vulnerability in the English monarch that’s missing from Ronan’s Mary. As a result it’s Elizabeth, ostensibly the bad guy in her garish clown make-up, who arouses the audience’s sympathy. When the time comes for Mary to lose her head (with the actual circumstances that led to this being completely glossed over) there’s not much to suggest that this was in any way an unreasonable course of action.

Margot Robbie delivers some of the best false nose work since Orson Welles died

The film’s key thesis is that were it not for the devious men of their respective courts, the two Queens would have come to some accord, but there is such a lack of focus on these courtiers that this thesis is never really proved. Guy Pierce delivers a decent John Hurt impression in his couple of scenes as William Cecil; Adrian Lester drifts in and out of proceedings early on then vanishes; David Tennant is energetic as the austere founder of the Church of Scotland, John Knox, but could have been cut out of the film altogether, such is his lack of impact on the plot.

Jack Lowden’s hair at least steals a few scenes. Lord Darnley obviously had access to 16th Century Brylcreem. He also provides the film’s most valuable lesson: that the greatest rewards are to be had from being a generous lover.

Ultimately, it’s the scenery that triumphs over the actors. Despite being from a distinguished theatre background, director Josie Rourke does have an eye for cinematic composition. It’s not difficult to make Scotland look beautiful, but no opportunity is missed to capture the country’s dramatic silver skies and undulating hills at their most magnificent. This is a stylish, visually splendid film, but lots of bad things are stylish and visually splendid.