Is the story of Mary Stuart and Queen Elizabeth I the right one to burden with a feminist message? A history of two enemy queens — divine and empowered by birthright — getting into a decades-long spat over who will rule England, it sounds more like a soap opera than a soapbox.
But the taxing new film “Mary Queen of Scots” starring Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie chooses lame self-righteousness over drama, and shoves it in our faces for two hours. It’s a royal chore.
Too bad, because Mary versus Elizabeth was a catfight for the ages. During the 16th century, the young Mary (Ronan) was Queen of Scotland, Queen of France and — being a Stuart — had a legitimate claim to the English throne as well. But that enviable seat was occupied by Elizabeth I (Robbie), who naturally hated her haggis.
More than anything, Mary wanted to be named heir by her childless cousin, Elizabeth. That way, Mary’s son James could someday rule.
James, whom we see here as a baby, eventually did get to don the crown. But — spoiler alert for anyone unfamiliar with this 400-year-old story — Lizzie chopped his poor mom’s head off for treason.
With emotional peaks like that, the movie should be as fiery as its stars’ red hair. But director Josie Rourke and the screenwriters douse the flames with too much behind-closed-doors machinations of bland men — Elizabeth’s ineffectual privy council, Mary’s conniving brother and husband — when we want female fisticuffs.
The 1971 “Mary, Queen of Scots,” which memorably and more successfully paired Glenda Jackson and Vanessa Redgrave, gave us such savage lines as, “You, madam, who hate me and wish me dead and fear to kill me, you are my mortal enemy.” Here we get a bunch of high-minded speeches about duty and how very hard it is to be a queen. They’re more cordial than a book club.
Ronan plays Mary as a Joan of Arc figure. She cares only about her responsibility to Scotland, and is flabbergasted that anyone would dare get in her way. She walks around distractedly as if she’s hearing voices.
Robbie, meanwhile, is the stodgiest Elizabeth ever filmed. Wildly miscast, she turns the accomplished queen into a vain old crone. She constantly whines about how beautiful and young Mary is, and is traumatized by her own smallpox scars. She tears up as she speaks of her courtly difficulties, saying, “I am more man than woman.” Coming from a real-life bombshell, it’s all a bit rich.
Better is the epic look of the Scottish Highlands. Aerial shots of hundreds of soldiers marching through hills or trotting on horseback are impressive, and the film makes clear the striking contrast between cosmopolitan England and the more rural Scotland.
But I’d gladly trade all that sweep for some spit and vinegar.
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