Lots Of Good Aspects;
That Fail To Come Together;
One of the more frustrating experiences for me when seeing a movie is when it has all the right ingredients but can’t make a meal worth savoring. This, for me, is a great example of that, with some wonderful acting, very good photography, set design, makeup and costumes, a great score and perfectly solid direction from a first-time director…but the final product just never coalesces into something memorable.
Perhaps it is hurt by the side-by-side release with another period piece about two women fighting for power (the easily superior The Favourite), but I still went into it with a fresh mindset. I was excited to see what Ronan and Robbie would bring to the table after they both turned in such great performances last year on their way to Oscar nominations, and they both delivered in big ways, but so much of the film felt frustrating and dull that it lessened their impact.
Much care is taken to show the scope of the conflict, from both a setting and implication standpoint, but I found it difficult to care about the conflict on any meaningful level. Certain characters (one most especially) seem to change their motivations and desires on a whim to fit the plot points, and it took me out of the experience. So while the writing surrounding Mary and Elizabeth was good, some of the surrounding players were clouded in frustration and confusion.
The two leading ladies do all they can to elevate the film into higher territory. Saoirse Ronan is amazing as Mary Stuart, as she cunningly pursues the throne that is her birthright, outsmarting the men trying to undermine her while coming across as strong as she is gentle. She deserves a lot of credit for her portrayal and continues to solidify herself as one of the best young actresses working right now. Robbie disappears behind wigs and makeup to a level that is often difficult to recognize, especially when Elizabeth contracts smallpox, and makes the most of her screen time (which is noticeably less than her co-star, who the film is named after). She brings some real emotional weight to the role and her performance is admirable, especially late in the film. My problem was, it was too little, too late.
Newcomer Josie Rourke, making her transition from the stage to the screen, directs this very competently, but the overall flow seems disjointed. Perhaps it was a problem of editing, but sometimes scenes just seem to smash together abruptly and there are time jumps that seem a bit off as Mary never looks to have aged. Sound is one of the better qualities on display, as the overall sound design is impressive and the score from the wonderful Max Richter is just as good as I’d hoped it would be.
The overall message of cruel men attempting to usurp intelligent, powerful women is an admirable one that applies as much now as it ever has, but feels very heavy-handed throughout the two hour runtime, and there are some lines of dialogue that could have easily been scrapped to allow the viewer to put those pieces together on their own without the extra help. Perhaps with a tighter script and more focus on editing, this would have come across as a much stronger film as opposed to something that was, for the most part, dull until the final act.