Mary Stuart’s attempt to overthrow her cousin Elizabeth I, Queen of England, finds her condemned to years of imprisonment before facing execution.
Following hot on the heels of David Mackenzie’s ‘Outlaw King’ comes another film looking back at one of Scotland’s most famous monarchs in ‘Mary Queen of Scots’. Josie Rourke’s film follows Mary after her return from France up until her execution and it’s an entertaining, if maddening take on her life. Set in the late 1500s, the film splits its time between two courts and two queens, Mary (Saoirse Ronan) who has reclaimed her throne in Scotland, and Elizabeth 1 (Margot Robbie), the queen of England. They are cousins yet they are divided by religion and competing ambitions for the throne of England, and this causes conflict that plays out throughout the course of the narrative. The film is well cast, combining the talents of the excellent Ronan and Robbie in the leading roles with some superb character actors as the men who surround them, but the historical inaccuracies and contemporary elements dull the film’s impact.
The first disappointment is that Rourke’s film sets out to perpetuate the myth of Mary as a tragic heroine, when a deeper exploration of how her flawed decision making and treachery sealed her own destruction would have been more powerful. Ronan is terrific, as expected, but the screenplay chooses to portray her version of Mary as a liberal queen whose demise was caused by the actions of others, when the opposite is true. It is also dismaying to see one of the greatest ever Scots in John Knox reduced to a cartoonish villain, even if David Tennant’s performance is fun, and the writers grasp on the politics and religious changes of the time is minimal at best. The film shoehorns in a contemporary approach to sexuality and leadership which is jarring, impacting on the authenticity of the story and it seems content to be a soapy potboiler instead of an engaging tale of political intrigue. That’s a real shame as there’s scope here to explore the dynamics between the two queens but the film only succeeds partly in this regard, and the fictionalised meeting between Mary and Elizabeth is a letdown.
‘Mary Queen of Scots’ is an entertaining move in spite of its flaws, largely down to excellent casting, strong performances and a soaring Max Richter score, but its disingenuous approach to history and the choice to shoehorn in contemporary attitudes are hard to get past. This is a key period of time in British history, paving the way for the Union of Crowns and the Reformation, and there’s a great film to be made about this time in history, but sadly ‘Mary Queen of Scots’ is not that film.
Directed By: Josie Rourke
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Margot Robbie, Jack Lowden, Joe Alwyn, David Tennant, Guy Pearce, Gemma Chan, Martin Compston, Ismael Cruz Cordova, Brendan Coyle, Ian Hart, Adrian Lester, James McArdle, Maria-Victoria Dragus, Eileen O’Higgins, Alex Beckett and Simon Russell Beale