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Mary Queen of Scots

An occasionally compelling overview of a fascinating chapter in history, undermined by poor pacing even as it's buoyed by strong lead performances.

There are two superficially similar historical dramas in Asheville theaters currently. Both star a pair of strong women engaged in political intrigue, both are immaculately costumed, both are courting award-season favor, and both are currently playing at Fine Arts Theatre. Hell, the similarities run so deep that Joe Alwyn’s inexplicably in both of them. The primary distinction is that Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite is exceptional, while director Josie Rourke and writer Beau Willimon have turned the inherently interesting history of Mary Queen of Scots into a slogging plod through the narrative muck. Though it has its high points, the comparison doesn’t do this film any favors.

It’s not simply that Mary is slow, although it most certainly is that. No, the principal flaw in Rourke and Willimon’s work is its fundamental incoherence, its lack of narrative weight. This is a dramatically inert retelling that loses the emotional core of its subjects’ conflict amid its toothless backroom politicking, failing to capture the immediacy and verve that made Willimon’s take on House of Cards a compelling binge-watch for at least a couple of seasons before it sputtered and died amid its own baroque largess. Any aspiring writers out there hoping to mine historicity for box-office gold should view Mary Queen of Scots as a cautionary tale.

Don’t get me wrong: There’s a great story here, buried somewhere under the overwrought theatrics. To be sure, the actual story of the struggle between Mary I of Scotland and Elizabeth I of England is rich material to draw from — but it’s probably too complex for a two-hour movie. Much of what Willimon’s going for with his story is compelling enough, but the pacing is so languorous and the character threads so convoluted that it’s hard to stay engaged in the dramatic tension. Willimon’s shooting for Braveheart meets Game of Thrones, but he winds up with something more like a long episode of Outlander.

The central performances are strong, with Saoirse Ronan’s portrayal of Queen Mary particularly compelling. Margot Robbie uglies up nicely in her turn as Elizabeth I, although it’s unlikely to earn her the Oscar that Nicole Kidman took home for donning a similar prosthetic nose in The Hours. But as good as the leads are, they’re underserved by their male co-stars — David Tennant is great but has exactly one villainous note to play, and Joe Alwyn might as well not even be here (as usual) — and the film as a whole falls short of the entire cast’s best efforts.

Mary Queen of Scots is one of those films that probably would have worked had it been either 20 minutes shorter or four hours longer. As it stands, it’s too drawn out to feel succinct but too overstuffed to feel complete — an odd juxtaposition for a film that had so much promise. Rourke’s staid direction and monochrome palette fail to distinguish her film from countless other period melodramas, and Willimon’s script definitely leaves something to be desired. And yet, in its better moments, it flirts with greatness, falling short only by virtue of its excessive ambition. It’s a good film, but certainly nothing to lose your head over.

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