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‘Mary Queen of Scots’ – a confusing movie with noble intentions

Mary Queen of Scots

A scene from "Mary Queen of Scots"

By Eleanor Ringel Cater

Rivals at last year’s Oscars, Sairose Ronan (“Lady Bird”) and Margot Robbie (“I, Tonya”) both lost to Frances McDormand in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.”

In “Mary Queen of Scots,” they lose to a confused script and Josie Rourke’s confusing direction.

Ronan has the title role. Married to the King of France at 16 and widowed at 18, Mary returns to Scotland in 1561 to take over the throne. Her intention is to take over the throne of England as well, to which she has a by-blood claim.

Mary Queen of Scots

A scene from “Mary Queen of Scots”

Standing in her way, however, is a little number named Elizabeth (Robbie) with hair as red as Mary’s and an iron will to match.

Initially, the movie plays like an old-fashioned costume drama, dutifully supplying dates and places and throngs of courtiers obedient to – or at least conscious of – their monarchs’ every whim. And since the queens never met in real life – a historical misstep remedied here, as it has been in every movie ever made about Elizabeth and Mary – the action mostly cuts back and forth between the two courts, causing even more confusion and a jerky stop-and-go dramatic flow.

As the title suggests, we spend most of our time with Mary as she pursues her queenly ambition, chooses (or rather mis-chooses) a husband and, in an early version of playing the Mommy card, trumps her southern rival by having a son and heir. “I shall prove myself the woman she is not,” Mary gloats.

Meanwhile, Elizabeth refuses all suitors, suffers from a disfiguring pox and concludes, “God would have a woman be a wife and a mother. I choose to be a man”

How very transgender of her which is in keeping with the rest of the movie’s loose, millennial-slanted take on historical drama. “Mary” is noticeably color-blind (what we now call multicultural) with characters of every hue in featured roles (something of a lie, given that Britain didn’t give up slavery until several centuries later, and we’re not re-imagining a Shakespeare play here).

Anyway, along with that, well, enlightened outlook comes a certain sexual leniency. Gay sex and oral sex are prominent plot points (by the time Elizabeth looks fondly at a young colt, you may wonder if bestiality is next.)

Mary Queen of Scots

The movie poster of “Mary Queen of Scots”9

None of this inclusiveness is wrong or bad or anything like that; it simply sets a tone that doesn’t necessarily serve the movie as a whole. Or perhaps the movie as a whole isn’t strong enough to support these ahistorical intrusions, which, in a better context, would be welcome rather than distracting. And the insistent feminism – Mary and Elizabeth might’ve gotten along just swell if it weren’t for all the manspreading and mansplaining in their respective courts – simply never convinces.

It’s a shame because both women are excellent. Robbie has less to do, but she’s exceedingly present in all her scenes, by which I mean, she does what all the best supporting actors do: she behaves as if the movie is about her without getting in anyone’s way.

And Ronan is just spectacular, creating a woman at once naive and scheming, open-hearted and wary. Though she instinctively understands her gender puts her at a disadvantage, she plays by old rules as well as new. She is simultaneously modern and just a few hundred years or so past medieval.

Much like its title character, “Mary Queen of Scots” is full of noble intentions and grand gestures. And, alas, like her, it somehow loses its head along the way.

Eleanor Ringel

Eleanor Ringel, Movie Critic, was the film critic for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for almost 30 years. She was nominated multiple times for a Pulitzer Prize. She won the Best of Cox Critic, IMAGE Film & Video and Women In Film awards. An Atlanta native, she graduated from Westminster and Brown University. She was the critic on WXIA’s Noonday, a member of Entertainment Weekly's Critics Grid and wrote TV Guide’s movie/DVD. She is member of the National Society of Film Critics and currently talks about movies on WMLB and writes the Time Out column for the Atlanta Business Chronicle.


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  1. Chris Johnston January 8, 2019 7:12 pm

    I was dismayed by the historical inaccuracies in this flick, obviously included by intent:
    1. Elizabeth and Mary never met.
    2. Mary was raised in France and did not have a Scots accent.
    3. Mary and Elizabeth were never friends, and Mary wrote and spoke dismissively of her cousin.
    Leave it to Hollywood to ruin a good story by embellishing it.Report

  2. Irma January 10, 2021 7:12 am

    Would like to point out that your point regarding race is inaccurate: there were black people under Tudor rule, and none of them were slaves.Report


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