Palace intrigue brought to vivid, soapy life in Josie Rourke's Mary Queen of Scots, a period piece evidently intended as a modern, vibrant palate cleanser from the stereotypically stolid pictures about royal history. With stage director Rourke and House of Cards' Beau Willimon on hand, this new proposition is indeed modern and vibrant; whether or not it's new in any meaningful way, or engaging beyond its immediate interest are concerns that neither director nor writer seem particularly bothered about resolving. Isn't the acting splendid? Aren't those fabrics luxurious? Doesn't Scotland look divine? It's all enough to sustain this project, though its general superficiality feels less the result of excessive focus on such trivialities as it does the byproduct of shoehorning two decades of political history into two hours. Willimon may have been better off churning out eight more therein and releasing this on TV.
Never mind, it's a movie, and it's not a bad movie either. Well-mounted, well-intentioned soap operatics are always enjoyable to watch, and Rourke provides an actor-centric theatricality that's mature enough in tone never to overwhelm the movie, and to imbue it with the kind of gravitas for which Willimon rather seems to strain. Her vision lacks in grandeur - now there's a palate cleanser! - yet buzzes with fervid possibility and openness, her leads' slender young frames smothered in skirting, frail against imposing landscapes and cavernous interiors. Early scenes are crosscut, stitched together by musical score - their lack of focus and their interest in the romances of young women lending them the unfortunate timbre of a Young Adult picture. There's an awkwardness to Mary Queen of Scots at first, stumbling as it does into ongoing history, launching itself into plots long since established yet necessarily requiring resolution within a couple of hours.
As situatons become increasingly desperate, and the inevitable ignominy of this story's end approaches, this movie acquires a sense of purpose, and with it a sense of shape. The final act is dramatically masterful, the knottiness of Mary's predicament and of Elizabeth's and of theirs combined coalescing into surprisingly fascinating content. There's an edgy anxiety to Mary Queen of Scots, not in anticipation of where it's headed (for that we know) but rather in appreciation of what it achieves en route. Principle to the movie's eventual success are the performances by Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie, both of whose full-bodied earnestness develops into mesmeric displays of dramatic finery, perfect for the stage, perhaps. Sumptuous scenery and one perfunctory battle scene aside, this may in fact be a story more suited for theatre than for film. Or TV. Or maybe it's just fine as it is. Alas, it's only fine, and too rarely too much more than that.
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