Mary Queen of Scots almost feels like it was made on a bet between producers to see just how much they could sell the aesthetic sensibilities of Game of Thrones without having to dip into that ever-popular series’ supernatural elements. Granted, the realms of Westeros are based on a Europe that predates the Elizabethan era by hundreds of years, but the distinct combination of elaborate costuming, conspiracies by candlelight, scenic shots of horse-ridden travel, no-nonsense clashes between armies, and political maneuvering all feels very staged and framed to be reminiscent of HBO’s most popular program, which isn’t exactly a bad thing, but it does seem like an odd choice of marketing to reconfigure this narrative as a battle of wills between two strong matriarchs when that doesn’t appear to be what the film itself wants to be.
This isn’t to say that the warring egos of Mary (Saoirse Ronan) and Elizabeth (Margot Robbie) aren’t present or even predominant for large parts of the narrative, with Mary exhibiting a cool determination in stark contrast to Elizabeth’s vanity and obsession with continuing her line upon the throne. They are ostensibly enemies, albeit ones who have a mutual respect as women of power who both want the throne of England, but Mary Queen of Scots eventually seems less interested in pitting these women against each other than in showing how both were victims of men who conspired to undermine their rule at every turn. It’s a complex tale of murder, lust, and betrayals, populated by factions acting against the interests of one crown or another but always in self-interest, ultimately boiling down to greedy and self-righteous men who want to wrest control of England and Scotland because they believe these women to be inherently inferior and above their station, despite what the traditions of succession dictate.
This is framed in a portrayal of Elizabethan Era courts as hedonistic bacchanals, rich with partying and revelry that acts as a backdrop for political manipulation, or perhaps vice versa depending upon one’s priorities. This gives the film an atmosphere of surreality that compliments the archaic speech in making history feel alien and sinister, with Mary and Elizabeth functioning as our rational – if not exactly selfless – ambassadors to a world where carnal vices and games of power go hand in hand, which of course means the men indulge in those vices at every chance and in the pursuit of self-empowerment. The main difference between Mary and Elizabeth is in how they deal with their would-be manipulators: Mary quickly dismisses those whom she disagrees with from her court, making quick enemies, while Elizabeth internalizes her insecurities and allows certain matters to fall to her ministers without caring to know the details. As a pair of character studies it is a fascinating contrast, with both Ronan and Robbie giving performances worthy of the dignity of their characters.
But despite its style and intrigue, there are some odd issues with the narrative, both structurally and factually. For one thing, despite ostensibly being about both Mary and Elizabeth, with the confrontation between the two acting as the film’s climax, this is still mostly Mary’s story, which reduces Elizabeth to a glorified supporting role and does a disservice to the main thrust of the contrast the film draws between them. This wouldn’t be so much of an issue if the film didn’t return to Elizabeth in the final moments as if she hadn’t just been lurking in the background for half the movie, leaving her moment of self-realization feeling tacked on to a film that was never fully about her.
Even so, Mary Queen of Scots is primarily focused on showing the struggles of queens in a world where men are considered superior, regardless of station, and in that it mostly succeeds, painting these strong women as ahead of their time and necessarily ruthless when their time called for it. If shooting what basically amounts to a condensed season of Game of Thrones is what it takes to sell this narrative, then so be it, because it works well enough.