You can almost set your watch to the fact that in every awards season, movie studios, in obvious bids for nominations, start to drop their period costume dramas. In fact, they seem to have filled the vacuum that World War II movies once occupied as the perfunctory genre that seems to rear its head, baiting the hook for voting boards all over. Mary Queen of Scots is a film that exists squarely in that wheelhouse, and honestly, it has no interest in doing anything else.
After her husband's death, Mary Stewart (Saoirse Ronan) returns to her kingdom of Scotland. With her Catholic faith, and a legitimate claim to the throne of England over her cousin Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie), tensions begin to mount between the two parties and their followers. With history in the balance, the two seem cordial enough in correspondence, but palace intrigue rages on around them, courtesy of the company they keep.
Mary Queen of Scots is a film so dry, it could be used to kindle your holiday fireplace. Despite director Josie Rourke's usage of the stereotypically on point makeup and costuming that this sort of film is known for, as well as a heaping helping of lush cinematography, this is a film that always feels like its head is in the air, delivering its lines with the highest degree of stoicism.
Though even as far as the visuals of Mary Queen of Scots go, even that department lacks a spark to really set the audience on fire. With a color palette that's extremely dull to look at, the film is as painful to watch as it is to experience. With that in mind, there is one key factor the film doesn't trip over itself with, and it's the casting involved in bringing it to life.
Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie both put a lot of effort into their performances, and knowing their pedigrees, you kind of feel bad for them being saddled with such a wet blanket of a movie. It feels like a revolving door of betrayals and truces, which leaves Mary Queen of Scots spinning its wheels, until it just gives up entirely. Thankfully for the audience, they do not abandon their cause as easily as the content of the script does, and that's where Mary Queen of Scots manages to rise slightly above unwatchable.
With both sovereigns resolute in their performances, the supporting cast is also able to latch on, and inject mild intrigue into a story. In particular, Guy Pearce as shrewd and calculating William Cecil, and David Tennant as the rabble rousing cleric John Knox both help push Mary Queen of Scots along, rather than just letting it coast in neutral gear. Still, even with really solid cast, the entire affair ultimately falls flat of the standard expected from such dramatic productions.
It should also be noted that Mary Queen of Scots has, quite possibly, the most boring R rating ever issued. The film isn't very titillating, and in the rare instance that it does get bloody, it's shot and tinted in such a way that it feels like they're purposely aiming for a PG-13. There's one scene that could more than likely be named the culprit of such a ratings scandal, but even then, it's a moment that is heavily implied with no overt nudity or lewdness present.
For a film covering a pivotal period of real life history, it's sad to say that in Mary Queen of Scots, it doesn't feel like one important thing happens in the entire movie. It's stiff and uninteresting, with no intent of winning over anyone but voters and devout fans of historical costume dramas. Even that audience may have a hard time rooting for Mary Queen of Scots, as it eventually reaches a point where you want the heads, and the credits, to roll in sweet release.