Mary, Queen of Scots, ranks among the most gripping figures in the romantic imagination, and she’s no stranger to artistic license, including Stefan Zweig’s 1935 psychological imagining, “Maria Stuart.” Thomas Imbach’s adaptation of the Zweig, “Mary Queen of Scots,” tries hard to capture the character of a woman torn between duty, love and realpolitik, yet the very nature of the monarch’s often inconsistent behavior trips him up — that, plus a weak lead and an ambiguous relationship to the notion of costume drama. If not for Mehdi Dehbi’s high-wattage charisma, Imbach’s “Mary” would soon be forgotten.
The prolific Zweig was concerned about biography but wanted even more to delve inside Mary’s head, imagining the emotional life of this anomalous sovereign who became queen of the Scots when she was six days old, queen of France at 16, and headless corpse at 44. Keenly proud of her position yet in awe of her cousin Elizabeth I, she made spectacularly poor tactical as well as amatory moves, and it’s this confounding complexity, on top of her tragic fate, that’s made her such a richly mined figure. Imbach (“Lenz,” “I Was a Swiss Banker”) and his fellow scripters strive to preserve her contradictory nature but can’t get a handle on her inner life, partly hamstrung by the beautiful Camille Rutherford’s shallow performance in the title role.
Largely raised in France, Mary marries future ruler Francis II (Sylvain Levitte, playing him as a flintlock-obsessed semi-cretin), but the sickly king dies after just 17 months on the throne. Under the protective escort of the Earl of Bothwell (Sean Biggerstaff, uncomfortable), the thoroughly French Mary returns to her realm of Scotland, where it appears she’s largely left to the company of four frolicsome, nightshirt-wearing female friends as well as the singing courtier Rizzio (Dehbi). The Scottish court was undoubtedly a comedown in the luxury stakes after France, but it was still a sophisticated seat, so it’s strange Imbach doesn’t bother showing chamberlains, ambassadors or any governing bodies.
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Rizzio is a cross between court fool and chief adviser, giving voice to Mary’s troubled relationship with Elizabeth I (whom she never met) via large puppets dressed as the two queens. Dehbi’s immense charm outshines everything around him; he’s also the sole actor at ease with the dialogue (in both French and English), so it’s especially unfortunate when Mary’s second husband, Lord Darnley (Aneurin Barnard), has Rizzio murdered.
Darnley turns out to be a scheming fanatic intent on preventing any Protestant inroads. Following his early death, quickly passed over, Mary unwisely falls for Bothwell, who becomes husband No. 3; in reality, they were not married by John Knox (Tony Curran) as the film suggests, one of many historical inaccuracies that add nothing in terms of plot or atmosphere. It’s hardly giving away the game to state that the pic ends just before Mary’s arrest.
The script appropriately makes Mary’s relationship with Elizabeth a key element, with the Scottish queen refusing to cede any ground, though clearly her insecurities about her fellow sovereign to the south betray such confidence. Having Mary speak in the first person via unsent letters addressed to Elizabeth reps a clever way of laying bare her emotional state and avoids the stolid tendencies of other historical pics, but as written here, the missives provide factual explanations and reveal a few anxieties without shining much light on Mary’s choices.
Given that Mary was a monarch deeply aware of her position on national and international levels, schooled practically at the knees of master manipulators in France, her lack of involvement in matters of state, as seen here, is singularly curious. Imbach also doesn’t succeed in fleshing out the reasons for her attachments to Darnley and Bothwell, and the seismic consequences of her unsuccessful attempts to appease Catholics and Protestants alike is only cursorily conveyed. Clearly the helmer didn’t want a straightforward biopic, yet he fails to find a satisfying alternative for telling the story in the way that, for example, Jacques Rivette managed with his magisterial “Joan of Arc.”
Filming was mostly done with Switzerland standing in for Scotland; since Imbach isn’t making a grand epic, the substitution isn’t problematic, though the interiors feel sparsely decorated and populated. Occasional attempts at poetic moments, such as when blackened wax drips onto Mary’s veil after Francis’ death, feel gratuitously thrown in, while others, such as when a bare-sleeved Mary whips off her white cloak and waves it about in surrender, are anachronistic and forced. Moody, off-balance shots of the Scottish landscape were lensed by Imbach himself.