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Review: 'Mary Queen of Scots' presents sluggish take on interesting narrative

Courtesy of Focus Features


Josie Rourke’s period drama “Mary Queen of Scots” is a spirited feminist take on the power struggle between two 16th century British icons. Rourke, and writer Beau Willimon, manage to jampack enough narrative fodder to fill a small miniseries, but they offer an interesting construct in how the two cousins Mary and Elizabeth (Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie) competed against the other whilst asserting their dominance in a tough political climate.

Both actors shine in a rivalry that defined an era, and “Scots” offers a compelling story which may have to contend with the oft rowdy “The Favourite” for the riches of year end viewers. “Scots” is ultimately a sorry and tragic tale of these two smart women, both of whom had stakes on the English throne. No question this retelling has been told numerous times on the big and small screen (2007’s “Elizabeth: The Golden Age” comes to mind).

In addition to providing meaty roles for the two lead actresses to chew on, the film serves as the directorial debut for Rourke, who is the director of London’s renowned Donmar Warehouse theatre company. Although Rourke and Willimon detail accounts of each queens rise and fall respectively, both filmmakers seem more concerned about suspicions rather than plotting.

Strategically, Rourke and editor Chris Dickens never show the sparring queens on screen together, cutting back and forth between their narratives so we can see the parallels. Of course, “Scots” notes the irony of these two in competition (and the divulge of men trying to assert their own wills on them). Only towards the end of the film do we bare witness to an encounter amongst the two, where the monarchs speak face-to-face, but at that point their wounds and sacrifices shine through the surface.

Still, “Mary Queen of Scots” will test audiences patiences for scenes in castles where people plot against other people in bigger castles. Like one big chess match, these intimately staged locales offer more background noise than narrative progression. Despite rousing battle scenes, twisted betrayals, and violent slashings of innocent peasants, this endearing, but ultimately sluggish venture is an example in which talking about the films history is more fascinating then what happens on-screen.

Grade: B-

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