Near the end of Josie Rourke’s pox-and-all rendition of Mary Stuart’s misadventures in monarchy (at the outset, she is former Queen of France, current Queen of Scotland, and hopeful Queen of England), the beleaguered Catholic asks her Protestant cousin Elizabeth (Margot Robbie), “How did it come to this?” We know the “this” from the opening scene, wherein she is taken from her knees before an altar and placed on her knees before a chopping block. The rest of the film is concerned with the “how,” and while there is much to admire — particularly the period aesthetic and Saoirse Ronan’s quicksilver lead performance — there is also much to lament: wonky political fast-talking over character interaction, a too-oft indulged tendency toward melodrama, and a largely failed attempt to parallel the struggles of two powerful women navigating the corridors of power. Mary has the better of it — in terms of both story and character — right up until her fateful confrontation with Elizabeth, which strives for momentousness but instead comes off befuddling. (How did it come to this?) After that, Robbie rises up and shows why she took the role, and the film manages a strong finish despite everything that’s come before. If it’s not quite a success, at least it’s an ambitious failure.
Length: 1 hour, 52 minutes