In nearly every frame of Josie Rourke’s subdued biopic Mary Queen of Scots, the director concentrates our attention on Saoirse Ronan’s slender neck. Sixteenth-century collars and necklaces accentuate its paleness and vulnerability.
By doing so, Rourke visually emphasizes what we already know: the doomed Scottish and Catholic monarch will be beheaded in 1587 at the age of 45. In contrast, Queen Elizabeth I’s (Margot Robbie) neck stays covered, protected by one elaborate ruff after another. Mary’s English and Protestant cousin will retain both her head and the crown.
The film begins on Mary’s last day alive. Ronan’s back is to the camera, praying, until a cadre of black-clad men open the door of her prison cell. They take her to an execution room filled with even more men, many of whom we’ll come to recognize as the conspirators who removed her from power. Mary bends forward to place her head on a slab of cold stone. The executioner raises his axe, a white veil falls upon her head and Rourke cuts away from the scene to take us back to 1561.
Ronan’s head is still bent forward under that veil, but now she’s vomiting on a Scottish beach from seasickness. After a brief marriage to the French King Francis II, she’s now an 18-year-old widow returning to Scotland to reclaim her throne. (Not that the script expends any energy to inform or orient the viewers to these facts.) Beau Willimon, the screenwriter responsible for the American reboot of House of Cards, might seem like an ideal choice to write a movie about political machinations and palace intrigue. But apart from title cards that bookend the film, every plot advancement feels rushed-through, truncated or undeveloped.
The only way to make sense of what’s happening is to concentrate on the performances of the actors playing the two queens. Ronan, who is 24, plays Mary from aged 18 until her death 27 years later. The director made a decision not to use prosthetics or make-up to age her. This adds to an ongoing sense of disorientation. Because Mary always looks like a fresh-faced, 24-year-old movie star, the scenes built around her character don’t appear to move forward in time. Events take place—a battle, a marriage, a birth, then another marriage—as if they’re happening in parallel rather than linear time periods. The approach moves the film along at a brisk pace, but it also makes those events feel weightless.
Robbie, however, has a nose that’s as impressive as the one Nicole Kidman wore in The Hours. Her Elizabeth I also suffers from a pox that scars her face. In this narrative, the illness explains why she began to paint her face white. As Elizabeth masks herself in make-up and regalia, she constructs a persona that breaks the confines of her gender. She won’t marry or have children because her power could be easily usurped by a consort or her male progeny. She confides in her closest advisor William Cecil (Guy Pearce, who is marvelously bewigged) that she’s had to become a man, or her idea of one, in order to maintain her throne.
But the boldness that characterized Cate Blanchett’s performance as the Virgin Queen in 1998's Elizabeth appears only in Ronan’s performance in this film. Robbie’s Elizabeth is passive, deferential to counsel and unsure of her public identity—that is, until late in the film when she imprisons her cousin. But Ronan’s Mary speaks her mind, acts rashly and alienates her allies. (She sticks her neck out, so to speak.) But her various attempts to regain authority over Scotland unapologetically revolve around her femaleness. And, unlike the neutered English queen, she imperils herself as a result.