I mean, I guess. There were a ton of other routes they could have taken with this story, but this one seemed like it was already on autopilot. This historical drama initially premiered as the closing night selection for the 2018 AFI Fest in mid-November of 2018. It was then released in U.S. theaters by Focus Features on December 7th, 2018, and has struggled to gross much more than $7.2 million at the box office against a budget of $25 million. It has also received mixed critical reviews along with numerous critiques for its apparent historical inaccuracies. The film marks the feature directorial debut of Josie Rourke, a highly prolific stage director with an extensive background in British theatre. Written by Beau Willimon, creator and longtime showrunner of the Netflix drama House of Cards, the film is loosely based on the book Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart by John Guy. It had originally been in production with Scarlett Johannson attached to star as far back as 2007 but soon languished in development hell. It then achingly started gearing up for commencement once more over the last, very slow 6 years. Set in Scotland circa 1569, Saoirse Ronan stars as the titular Mary Stuart, a young woman claiming to have legitimacy not only to the Scottish throne but to the whole of the United Kingdom. She challenges her cousin Queen Elizabeth I of England, played by Margot Robbie, a virgin who cannot have any children or heirs. However, their mutual steadfast refusal to marry politically or heed word from their male-dominated councils puts them into a tricky position for their respective peoples, who begin to see both Queens as unfit to rule. This is a film that feels like something right out of Miramax’s awards season playbook from the late 1990s. Take from that what you will, but to me, large budget costume dramas like these haven’t had a major hit in a long time. I can’t really say that I’m a fan of House of Cards, but I do love the two main actresses and will seek out whatever they’re in. And this is a sect of history that I’m really not that familiar with, so I was curious to see what this sort of conflict would look like for these people. Unfortunately, Mary Queen of Scots succumbs to many of the same problems historical movies have always had. When it comes down to it, this is ultimately a case of a great burgeoning director fighting against a weak screenplay. Based on the few episodes I’ve seen from House of Cards, I can tell that Beau Willimon is definitely interested in politics and their machinations. But, also like that Netflix show, it seems like he doesn’t have a clear understanding of how politics works, no matter what era. To him, it’s just a bunch of cruel and selfish people destroying anyone in their way in their quest to the top of the throne room; the lack of any further nuance or insight makes this angle and the characters one-dimensional and uninteresting. This stands in contrast to Josie Rourke’s direction, which highlights an excellent knack for staging. She does her best working with the material she’s given, and it makes me interested in what she does for the future. But there are some things in it that she simply doesn’t seem equipped to overcome, as there are a number of instances that stretch both its historical accuracy and believability. For what it’s worth, though, Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie do good work in their respective roles. Although it feels cliché and unbelievable to position Mary as an underdog, Ronan is uncompromising and fierce as the Scottish Queen. Robbie also manages to be strong-willed and determined, despite her sad circumstances with no hope of reprieve. Interestingly, there’s only one scene in the entire film where they share the screen together, but their chemistry in that one moment was dynamite and empathetic. In comparison to these two, most of the other actors fall short. Gemma Chan and Guy Pearce look a tad uncomfortable in their roles as two of Elizabeth’s advisors, while Jack Lowden and James McArdle portray Mary’s second husband and traitorous brother, respectively. They all remain confined to their archetypal roles, and in a few instances change their attitudes or traits in such a fast and unbelievable manner. The only other player here who leaves something of an impression is former Doctor Who David Tennant as John Knox, a thick-bearded Protestant cleric. Proclaiming that a woman sitting on the throne is an affront to God’s will, he is frequently seen delivering fiery sermons to the Scottish people in an effort to turn them against their Queen. He acts and speaks like a 16th Century version of Fred Phelps, which in some instances pulled me out of the movie, and in others kept me engaged. The technical aspects of Mary Queen of Scots, are very inconsistent, being great in parts but never as a whole. Ridley Scott’s frequent cinematographer John Mathieson captures both kingdoms in gloomy, washed out colors primarily. While the beautiful Scottish countryside is used for great background, both it and the almost-solely castle-set England feel a little too monochromatic. Thankfully, the controlled and focused movements and angles capture good lighting throughout the councils’ various quarrels. Chris Dickens edits the film in an intriguing way, albeit one that’s occasionally choppy or unbalanced. During verbal arguments, it frequently intercuts with other scenes to add more momentum to whatever is going on on-screen. The film runs at 2 hours and 5 minutes, but it often feels like it was originally a 3 hour-long epic cut down for commercial purposes. The best aspects of the film are undoubtedly Alexandra Byrnes’ elegant costumes, Jenny Shircore’s wide-ranging makeup and hairstyling, and James Merifield’s excellent production design. Without these 3 elements, late Medieval Great Britain would have felt far more staid and lifeless. The highly prolific and talented composer Max Richter provides the instrumental film score. In some ways, it feels similar to much of his regular work, and in other instances, it doesn’t. With his traditional backing of string instruments, there are a handful of melancholy tracks for some of the characters and their fates. There are also some rather rousing and exciting tracks using booming percussion instruments and occasionally something like subtle flutes and oboes. I can’t say that I’d necessarily pick it up on Apple Music, but it definitely fit for the context of the film. Neither remarkably awful nor astoundingly great, Mary Queen of Scots is a deeply conflicted portrait of two strong women wrestling with royalty and privilege. Again, Josie Rourke shows some considerable talent behind the camera and the two leading ladies are quite appealing in their roles. The bummer is that the supporting cast and script surrounding them just don’t really ever measure up to them.