Director: Josie Rourke
Screenplay: Beau Willimon
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Margot Robbie, Jack Lowden, Joe Alwyn, David Tennant, Guy Pearce
Runtime: 125 Minutes
The odd state of Mary Queen of Scots settles once you realise how the film has been mis-marketed. What has been sold through the posters and advertising appears to be a pop art rendition of history, with an even split two-hander in the leads of Saoirse Ronan as Mary, Queen of Scots and Margot Robbie as her cousin Queen Elizabeth I as two queens at war for a single thrown. But in actuality is a much smaller scale, traditionally structured period drama where the heavier three-quarter weight falls more on the side of Ronan in the titular role.
That’s more observation than criticism going in, but it’s worth noting because of the fact that when all is said and done, it’s like an oddly deflating experience in that there’s an awful lot of incident in this film chronicling the years between Mary Stuart’s return to Britain from France to reclaim her title. Be it down to time compression, the boiling down of elements and figures or the shape of the final edit, by the end, it feels like not a great deal has actually unfolded dramatically or narratively.
Although charting the ‘Rising of the North’, the film delivers in half measures in certain areas such as a brief and done with fight scene here, a confrontation in a courtroom there, and an editing structure that ends up boiling down supporting roles from David Tennant and Guy Pearce to single serving plot devices of incite who come and go – although Tennant is at his scenery-chewing best as the Protestant cleric, John Knox.
But the film does belong to the women of the piece, emphasising their ongoing war against the men in their councils who seek to control and, in some ways, conspire against them. Ronan is on top form here, delivering her Mary with vindication and stubborn will but a plethora of emotion the convey her conflicted heart, and the fact that so much of what she takes agency with is ultimately self-destructive.
Robbie has the lesser role, but she’s giving it all she’s got in her moments of outburst and the insights we get into her more tender humanity and softening as the film goes on, and her evolving makeup job strengthens her characters evolution into the colder depiction of the monarch in her later years by the end. Jack Lowden also makes the most of his role as Lord Darnley, Mary, Queen of Scots' second husband.
There’s been much bluster about the historical inaccuracies of the film, ranging from Mary’s accent to changing relationship between Elizabeth and Mary being more benevolent or outright falsified (they never actually met in person during this period).
This falls into the two camps of reading; one being that no depiction of historical events is never truly objectively correct given the nature of subjectivity and reading, and the needs of elements such as theme, story and character superseding occasionally superficial elements. Then there’s the desire (or possibly duty) of cinema like this to maintain its accuracies given that a majority of people absorb much of their readings of history through popular culture without looking further (just ask anyone what they know of Sir William Wallace that wasn’t down to Braveheart).
But, it’s predominantly clear that this is a more heavily stylised rendition of 16th-century history, stemming from director Josie Rourke bringing her theatre skills to this debut. The colour-blind casting barely seems to matter when the performances are this good, and give proceedings a more cutting and contemporary edge regarding its representations of sexuality and gender especially with very pointed commentaries and lines at points.
The film is eye-catching in design, from the boldly coloured costumes to the cavernous natural design of Mary’s Holyroodhouse to the traditional modernity of Elizabeth’s home. These are stark visual contrasts that pop and pleasure, as does Rourke’s tendency to interlace sequences in Scotland and England with one another only in vastly different contexts, such as in the film’s opening scene.
But crosscutting can only do so much lifting to convey a sense of tension and drama, and after a while it becomes apparent that even though the film is making a point by handing over many of it’s inciting duties to the men while the two women helplessly keep their heads above the chaos, it also leaves much of the conflict feeling out of the hands of the main players – and the choice to frame it with the ending scene at the begging doesn’t help the outcome much. Much of this might be down to Beau Willimon’s occasionally heavy-handed screenplay, although there are plenty of lines that sting and sing as intended incredibly well.
Mary Queen of Scots is serviceable and entertaining, but given the talent, it feels like it should have been stronger beyond its striking design, and two very strong performances leading it. For something that looks like should leave a much deeper impact, it may fall to the wayside as yet another award season contender that couldn’t quite cut it.