Photo: Focus Features

One thing the historical drama Mary Queen Of Scots seems to acknowledge straight away is that to apply the traditional biopic structure to the life of Mary Stuart, a queen of Scotland and would-be queen of England from the 16th century, would be an exercise in uncontrollable dramatic excess. (A 1936 attempt ended with star Katharine Hepburn labeled “box office poison,” though 1971’s Mary Queen Of Scots earned Vanessa Redgrave an Oscar nomination for her take on the title role.) Stuart’s country-hopping, triple-marriage, execution-ended life included claims to positions in no less than three different monarchies, and so the new movie picks up (after a brief prologue on the executioner’s doorstep) with Mary (Saoirse Ronan) returning to Scottish shores after the death of her husband, the king of France. She takes the throne from her half-brother, and also believes, by complicated monarch math, that she could rightfully claim the throne from her cousin Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie), current ruler of England.

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Elizabeth regards her cousin warily, and though the two do not meet face to face, heavy strategizing and royal negotiating begins on both sides, communicated by messenger. Mary wants peace with England, but also to be named as Elizabeth’s successor; Elizabeth attempts to install her trusted associate and lover Robert Dudley (Joe Alwyn) in Mary’s court. When Mary takes Henry Darnley (Jack Lowden) for a husband, Elizabeth bristles at the Catholic union that could threaten her Protestant rule. Advisors conspire, religious fanatics perspire (the movie keeps cutting back to John Knox, a Protestant played by David Tennant who appears to be performing a never-ending anti-Mary sermon), and the two women are constantly pitted against each other, even as they insist, through various go-betweens, that they have a more sisterly relationship. Elizabeth even becomes goddaughter to Mary’s only son. The movie portrays Mary as open-minded almost to the point of naïveté, while also ruthless enough to demand the English throne and trash-talk about Elizabeth’s barrenness.

True to its title, the movie favors Mary in terms of screen time, and Ronan is certainly charismatic and expressive enough to hold the screen. But the story is most interesting when cutting between the two women, forming an indirect but ongoing conversation between two people who are almost never in the same room together. Ronan and Robbie, playing a wearier monarch than her Scottish counterpart, do share a late scene, a secret meeting in a remote house where they drift through a room dressed to resemble a maze of gauzy sheets, Elizabeth particularly reluctant to face her cousin. Even when they finally, actually put eyes on each other, the two actresses rarely share the frame, like Pacino and De Niro in Heat. That might seem like an odd comparison point for a female-driven historical drama, but director Josie Rourke, an accomplished theater director making her feature debut, seems most engaged in the material when the women are grappling with an adversarial relationship that also shackles them together. This connection provides them a peculiar intimacy not unlike those doomed men on opposite sides of the same coin. Only another queen could understand, Mary says to one of her confidantes at one point, before an on-the-nose (if effective) cut straight to Elizabeth back in England.

Photo: Focus Features

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Given the capable performances and a few memorable scenes, it’s difficult to pinpoint why this handsome, competent production can’t offer much more satisfaction—why it often takes on the dutiful weight of unrewarding work. It could be that the men around Ronan and Robbie are dully interchangeable agents of bearded plotting; good luck getting a handle on which is Darnley and which is Dudley. Or it could be that the movie struggles mightily with clearly depicting the passage of time, even when a smallpox outbreak is meant to scar and age Robbie’s youthful face. Or maybe, on the heels of a movie as wild as The Favourite, this form of palace intrigue just comes across as particularly old-fashioned, despite its contemporary levels of sex and violence.

That’s probably not fair to Mary Queen Of Scots, which at its heart is more interested in generating empathy for women who have been placed in bizarre, unknowable positions and must teach themselves how to maneuver through them as best they can. It does this to a point, but by focusing on Mary (the subject of its source material), the film feels lopsided, especially without any other interesting characters apart from Elizabeth. The final shots, several of which involve Ronan looking straight into the camera, have an invigorating, even heartbreaking directness. But by cutting through the movie’s royal morass, they call attention to how pervasive it is.