There is a thing that costume dramas sometimes do, and it always annoys me, and Mary Queen of Scots does it a whole lot: make characters who weren't even progressive by their own era's standards progressive by our own. What we have here is a story about two people who very much existed, and about whom we know a great deal: Queen Mary I of Scotland (Saoirse Ronan) and Queen Elizabeth I of England (Margot Robbie). And for reasons that I'm sure made a lot of sense to screenwriter Beau Willimon when he was writing, the film has decided that the absolute best way to endear these characters to modern audiences is to give them every anachronistic attitude under the sun, to seem as progressive and morally righteous as one could possibly make 16th Century monarchs. And "possibly" doesn't even really apply: no matter how much one might wish to make Mary a 21st Century feminist icon, the idea that a devout Catholic monarch during the Renaissance would, in her personal life, be a crusader for trans* equality is so utterly hopeless as anything even modestly resembling history that one has to step back and wonder what the hell the film thought it was possibly saying that was a valuable window into life in the 1550s or life in the 2010s or any time in between.

This film is at least the third of that exact title (give or take a comma), but Mary I has been an attraction to filmmakers since literally the beginning: 1895's The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots is often cited as the first film to use special effects. Nearly one and a quarter centuries later - 82 years after Mary of Scotland almost destroyed Katharine Hepburn's career - 47 years after Vanessa Redgrave earned an Oscar nomination for playing the title role and Glenda Jackson was wholly robbed of one for playing Elizabeth in 1971's Mary, Queen of Scots - the question must arise if there's actually any merit to trying again, especially since it's never really worked yet: notwithstanding the 1895 film, it's struck me that every film version of Mary's life and death has encountered almost identical problems and failed for almost identical reasons.

The new film is no exception. For those who aren't up on their British monarchial history, Mary was the great-granddaughter of Henry VII of England via his eldest surviving child Margaret, putting her on the succession map ahead of Elizabeth (Henry's granddaughter by Margaret's young brother Henry VIII) according to strict birth order, but not according to birth order favoring males. Moreover, Mary was a practicing Catholic, while Elizabeth was the third Protestant ruler of England, and it was this more than strict principles of primogeniture that lead to factions in England supporting each woman's claims to the throne. All of this was moot until 1561, while Mary was in France, married to the teenage king Francis II, allowing Scotland to be ruled by a contested series of regents. It was during the summer of that year that the widowed Mary returned to her kingdom at age 18, reclaiming it amidst substantial turmoil between Catholic loyalists and Protestant opposition, and is into this turmoil that we step as the film begins. For the next seven years, Mary's political career was a matter of treachery and factionalism, conspiracies to murder this or that nobleman either too sympathetic or too antagonistic to Mary, and a wary relationship with her cousin Elizabeth, who was perpetually concerned that Mary was on the brink of attempting to assert her own claim to the English crown.

Put it another way: the story of Mary, Queen of Scots will always, always be one involving a lot of talking, a lot of candlelit plotting, and a lot of movement across Scotland and England over the course of several years, while the two main players, Mary and Elizabeth, never once met in person (the film unsurprisingly tweaks this, and the result is one of its very strongest scenes). While there are surely ways of making this dramatic, nobody has come closer than the makers of the 1971 film, who basically got to cheat by ceding enormous chunks of the movie to Jackson storming around. Willimon and director Josie Rourke attempt something very different, keeping Elizabeth offscreen for most of the film (which does not prevent Robbie from making the second-biggest impression of anyone in the cast; this is perhaps inherent to the role), and telling all of this as a personal story of how Mary feels about all the shenanigans. It's an approach that immediately fails, largely because of how uncritically fannish the movie is towards Mary: to watch the film, you'd never suppose she was a politician at all - for that matter, you'd never know it about Elizabeth, either, which is absolutely fucking ridiculous - but merely a poor girl following her heart and being constantly exploited for it. Every filmed version of Mary's life has tended to present her as a beatific innocent more than the facts allow, but in this case, the character is obliged to serve so much as a vessel for the filmmakers' anachronistic notions of religious equality (a ludicrous presentism for this story of all stories) and feminism (much less ludicrous, but not handled well in this instance), rather than as an active player in the thorny matter of dynastic politics, she's robbed of any real interest.

Ronan certainly dives in and gives the character everything she can manage, and by the end of the film, she's even succeeded in converting Mary's cotton-headed earnestness for some flinty survivalism. Even before that, there's something interesting about casting Mary with an actor who reads as young as Ronan does, making the film more about the character's youthful energy than has previously been the case (the bulk of the film takes Mary from age 16 to age 23; Ronan is 24). In fact, the acting is, in general, the film's strong suit: Rourke, a theater director making her first feature, obviously understands actors and how to position them around each other, and when the film works as drama, it works largely as a conflict of personalities carefully staged for every individual moment. That is to say, it's sometimes awfully hard to work out what's happening overall, but it's usually quite clear what's happening right now and how we're to feel about it, and that's almost entirely on the directing.

The film also has the usual compensations of a well-heeled costume drama: the costumes are very good, the sets are brooding and moldering and rich in the right ways, the Max Richter score is appropriately tinged with Scottishisms that are also anachronistic, but in the good way. It's just that damn script, making an unwieldy history even more cluttered, emphasising weird things about characters, and somehow making Mary and Elizabeth feel like they have less agency than their historical counterparts, despite this being avowedly feminist. Still, it's decent enough royalty porn, and as a fan of bright green fields against slate grey castles, I'll admit that the film at least gets the fundamentals of its genre right, and its a genre we don't generally get enough of.