Mary Queen of Scots Film Review

A story of two queens but a bit more about one than the other.

From the first moments when we see Saoirse Ronan on screen in a bold black velvet dress which, when removed, reveals a brilliant red version underneath, it is clear that Mary Queen of Scots is going to be a rich spectacle.

As the eponymous heroine, Ronan is in almost every scene, comfortably inhabiting a regal bearing. It is a role she is made for – I remember reading as a child that Mary had a very slender neck. Ronan is perfect in reflecting this quality. But more importantly, at 24 she is not far from the age of the Queen when she came to Scotland as a widow.

Image via Focus Features

The film is based on the book The True Life of Mary Queen of Scots by John Guy, and focuses very much on the female perspective of both Mary and her “sister queen” Elizabeth.

Mary was married at 16 to the Dauphin of France and became Queen of France when he ascended the throne as King Francis. When he died shortly after, she returned to Scotland. She married a further two times – firstly to Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley to secure an heir, and then to his murderer James Hepburn by force.

In the book and film, Mary believes it is through her relationships with men that she can secure her position but they all betray her. They are all out to usurp the female on the throne. Even in Elizabeth’s case, Robert Dudley is encouraged to impregnate the Queen to strengthen her position and that of those around him. Elizabeth is later encouraged to use him to marry Mary and secure his influence and that of the English Court in the Scottish one. Mary sees through this and decides on the Catholic (but unfortunately, for her, gay) Henry Darnley who fathers her son James (who later becomes King of England and Scotland).

Image via Focus Features

Margot Robbie is excellent as Queen Elizabeth. She sets aside her natural beauty to assume the role. Based on previous Oscar wins which have been awarded to an unattractive nose (Nicole Kidman in The Hours) and rough ugliness (Charlize Theron in Monster), this is often a good move to guarantee being taken seriously in Hollywood. However, she has already proven her acting ability previously in the unglamorous role of Tonya Harding in last year’s I,Tonya. Robbie’s role is smaller in this than the film’s billing and marketing may suggest. This film is most definitely about Mary but Elizabeth is an important character, and the way she inhabits her physical bearing is an important character development in the film. Elizabeth’s role in the film is a broad brushstroke illustrating her attitude to Mary and Mary’s court from the perspective of Mary. While the two are pitted as rivals in history and their dangers to one another are the focus of their courts, there are many similarities between the women and both have very admirable qualities, of which the other is somewhat jealous. History is all about perspective and much depends on who is telling the history. Here it is trying to focus on the two women and their perspectives.

Image via Focus Features

The cast is populated by many beards (actual beards, not euphemisms) and at times it is a struggle to recognise the actors behind the beard. Guy Pearce plays William Cecil (Queen Elizabeth’s closest confidante); David Tennant plays Mary’s chief opponent in Scotland, the Protestant John Knox; Brendon Coyle has risen from downstairs in Downton Abbey to the Earl of Lennox; Jack Lowden is Henry Darnley; and Joe Alwyn, most recently seen scheming in The Favourite, is again in costume as Robert Dudley.

As ever, the Brits handle diversity well, this time casting Adrian Lester as Lord Randolph and Gemma Chan as Bess of Hardwick. It’s smoothly done and respectful to the audience. Director Josie Rourke said that colourblind casting was important to her because of the many years that people of colour were left out of such portrayals in film. I hope this is a precedent that will continue to followed. That it is not perfect to the history is not something I am overly concerned with – this is not a documentary but hopefully for some, an appetiser to learning more about the actual history after being exposed to one interpretation. As a film, Mary Queen of Scots elicits sympathy for both queens who each make great sacrifices for their positions. Elizabeth is single and childless and has to constantly watch her back. Mary has been betrayed by all the men around her.

Image via Focus Features, Liam Daniel

Max Richter has done a most impressive job in scoring the film. This is worthy of any British costume drama of this magnitude.

The two young actresses carry the film and their youth (Robbie is 28) gives authenticity to the two young queens leading the way in the Elizabethan world. The parliamentary and court seances show how lonely it must have been to a woman in those times. There was no-one to confide in and have as an ally. As in today’s corporate world, the men had their own world which neither a queen was admitted to join, and many of the real political discussions happened in their absence.

The first hour of the film, which I saw at the outdoor cinema, was viewed without a drop of rain but after that, the downpour started. People began to leave, and that continued on a steady basis until the end of the film. However, those of us who chose to remain focused on the film in our ponchos were a good 75% of the original sold-out crowd. This was a good positive sign as the rain had been quite heavy, and for the audience to remain shows how well the film drew them in.

Feature image via Focus Features