The year is 1561, and Mary Stuart has returned to Scotland. Spending most of her childhood in France, Mary (Saoirse Ronan) has decided to come home and claim her throne, the very one her half-brother, James (James McArdle) has been keeping warm in her absence. Maybe too warm, as Mary soon find out.
But this Scotland is not the Scotland Mary left all those years ago. In 1560, the Calvinist preacher, John Knox (David Tennant), brought the Reformation to Scotland, calling for riots in the streets and the end of Catholic rule. Down in England, the Protestants already control the throne thanks to Mary’s cousin, Queen Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie). But the virgin queen has not yet produced an heir and should Mary beat her to the punch, her child will be next in line for both crowns.
To prevent a political catastrophe, the men who serve both queens hatch a plan to assuage Mary and control her from the bedchamber. Enter Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden), a handsome and dashing fellow who seduces and weds Mary. But, when it is discovered Darnley is both gay and a drunk, he falls out of favor with Mary and his puppetmasters.
Intriguing, yes, but in Mary Queen of Scots, this is all window dressing. Director Josie Rourke and writer Beau Willimon have less interest in the backroom politics that drive two countries from war to unity to war again as they do the eternal battle of the sexes. It would not be lost on audiences that men can feel threatened by women in power, but neither Rourke nor Willimon are willing to take that chance. Never once do they allow the audience to forget that men disdain women in power. From a sneering Knox to conspiracies to usurp Mary to casual conversations between ancillary characters who aren’t happy with their station in life, Mary Queen of Scots wants to remind you, and remind you again, that men don’t take kindly to being told what to do by a woman.
In this regard, Mary Queen of Scots feels more like a movie about Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign than a power-struggle between two cousins, two religions, and two islands 450 years ago. The movie even uses Knox as a stand-in for Trump: orating in churches and public squares, whipping the people into a frenzy, and leading them in mob chants. It’s not “Lock her up,” but you get the gist.
Worse yet, Mary Queen of Scots has the unfortunate timing of entering the multiplex alongside The Favourite, another English period piece where a country at war is run from the Queen’s bedchamber. Though The Favourite is much more exaggerated and flat-out funnier than Mary, The Favourite also comes across as a more accurate depiction of its era. Do the men in The Favourite resent having to serve women and take orders from them? Not really. Their difference is of politics and issues surrounding power dynamics, but they do not find the prospect of serving Her Highness as repugnant as every single man in Mary Queen of Scots does. And this constant hand-wringing is Mary Queen of Scots’ ultimate undoing: it’s too hung up on the present to focus on the past.