Mary Queen of Scots delivers uneven historical thrills but with regal performances. Artistic licence, the distortion of facts and alteration of events, should only be used to change small details for dramatic purposes. When the whole film builds up to an event that never actually took place, well you immediately start to doubt the legitimacy of what preceded it. Such is the case with this period drama. History becomes far too twisted and what was a biographical depiction of an empowering woman has now become a fictional tale of courtly politics. Despite its inaccuracies and disjointed narrative structure, there are many elements that do work and give life to the Scottish highlands that surrounds Mary. Chronicling the "Rising of the North", this drama depicts the life of Mary Stuart as she struggles to maintain control of Scotland whilst also deposing Queen Elizabeth so that she can be succeeded by Mary.
A rivalry between cousins, a battle between Christian denominations and the most epic slow-motion birthing scene to ever grace the big screen. It contains all the ingredients of a traditional regal drama. Two incredibly powerful central performances. Ronan goes full 'Braveheart' and twists her Irish native tongue to a consistently good Scottish accent. However it is her commanding presence that truly captivates. She never needed to shout or rage to warrant power, her sharp quiet voice was enough to pierce her enemies. She gave life to Mary and at times made her an empowering figure within a court dominated by men. Robbie, who played Elizabeth, definitely went through more of a physical transformation. Occasionally she did overact, yet she managed to replicate the envious mannerisms that Elizabeth had for Mary. Pearce and Tennant, regardless of their small roles, gave very good performances. Unfortunately, their talents were underused. I have no faults with the central character development. It does take time to connect with them, mostly due to the clinical approach that director Rourke took, but considering it's her directorial debut she does eventually get there. Mathieson's cinematography was beautiful and fully embraced the 16th century Scottish environment, Rourke produces some gorgeous landscape shots. Richter's score was nuanced for the most part, but a few tracks certainly accentuated the courtly politics that accompanied it. Byrne's costume design was sumptuous and Shircore's extensive range of hair designs were also noteworthy. Everything looked to be set in place for a masterful historical drama. Protestants versus Catholicism, political conspiracies and acts of sodomy. A variety of intriguing, if inaccurate, sub-plots that unfortunately just made the whole ordeal rather underwhelming.
This is a combination of a poor screenplay and unfocused editing. There are a plethora of noblemen, councilmen and confidants that are all one-dimensional. Aside from Rizzio (although unsure about that hyperbolic dressing up scene...), all other characters were underdeveloped and were seemingly difficult to distinguish their motives. Who is who? They all look the same, act the same and feel the same. It's not until the second half when the conspiracies are put into action that these supporting characters receive a small splash of flavour. Yet it's too late. Another complaint is with Elizabeth and honestly, she did not need to be present at all. She simply existed for a climactic scene that never historically took place. The story had no purpose for her and, after all, it is entitled Mary Queen of Scots. The constant abrupt edits to shift the narrative onto her perspective made the story disjointed and created inconsistent pacing. Remove Robbie and just let Mary read letters from Elizabeth instead. Get rid of the fictional meeting. Dispose of the undercooked romance with Dudley. Let her be this ominous figure and use the runtime more wisely to strictly be about Mary and develop that side of the story even further. Sometimes less is more, and in this case I do believe it would've benefited from anonymity. I also found the portrayal of Darnley's promiscuity to be excessive and unexpectedly lacklustre. Again, he had little development so any shocking reveals were diminished almost immediately.
It's a shame, because with the right script this could've been something special. However Willimon distorted the facts with no restraints, and unfortunately made me question the entire storyline. Solid drama with excellent performances and garments, but felt damper than a rainy day in Carlisle.