How much fun would it be to watch an alternate version of ‘Game of Thrones’ in which all the boring men cowered behind trees while two female dragons circled overhead? You may be wondering about that while taking in ‘Mary Queen of Scots’, visually dull and intriguing in only the most generic sense, but still a showcase for the twin talents of Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie. For their royal viciousness alone, the movie is almost worth seeing, even if the backbiting is nowhere near as killer as ‘The Favourite’ (it’s a good time to be an onscreen monarch).
Technically, this is Ronan’s movie: She plays the titular role, Mary Stuart, estranged from her native Scotland, reared Catholic in France and already widowed as a teenager. In 1561, Mary is returning home to a mess of competing claims to power. For all the soulfulness Ronan has summoned elsewhere – her performances in ‘Brooklyn’ and ‘Lady Bird’ are worthy of the silent era’s most iconic turns – she’s a little stiff here, uneasy in the saddle, and wasted on moments of grandeur and hot-blooded pronouncements.
Fortunately, ‘I, Tonya’s Robbie is happy to pick up the slack as England’s ruling Elizabeth, cursed with bad skin, worse wigs, defective ovaries and a scheming cousin in Mary. They’re rivals, but the script (by Beau Willimon, based on John Guy's 2004 biography) awkwardly constructs only one scene for them to play against each other. No matter: Long before the verbal fireworks of that final showdown, Robbie is exuding loneliness and fury in her gilded cage. Director Josie Rourke points out their differences a bit too obviously: Mary’s bedsheets are covered in postnatal blood while Elizabeth has only decorative paper ribbons spread out before her. Even so, the shared fertility psychodrama is fierce.