Film Reviews

Mary, Queen of Scots: An enchanting and captivating period piece

Margot Robbie and Saoirse Ronan excel in this gritty and compelling historical drama as the rivalry between Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots is re-examined.

I have been anticipating this film for the better part of a year and it did not disappoint. It helps that the Tudors is my favourite period of English history, and I am a sucker for execution victims, even when they perhaps might have deserved this. This film took the story that I already knew and imbued it with splendour.

Our hatred is precisely what they hope for.

It is this quote that summarises the narrative trajectory of the film. Pretty much everybody in the country knows the tale of Elizabeth I’s execution of Mary, Queen of Scots: often portrayed as some petty rivalry between the two women in which Elizabeth cruelly had her peer offed. Similarly, there is also the take of Elizabeth being tricked into signing the death warrant of her distant cousin. While this is overly simplistic, a tale of two women being manoeuvred like chess pieces by the men surrounding them is much more engaging than a story pitting the two women against each other. They are caught within the machinations of the men who seek to control the thrones that they sit upon, all while complex religious, succession and gender arguments swirl around.

It is small wonder that the taglines that have followed this film in its advertising are that it is the perfect story for these times. It is a tale that is carried by the two lead women as the attempt to support each other despite being advised to the contrary by the men to counsel them. As an audience member, you come to hope that the two women will meet face to face to iron this issue out once and for all without the interference of others.

Even more amusingly are some of the reviews that have cropped up since the film’s release. In one particular review (that I staunchly oppose) by a certain Matthew Bond for Event magazine seems to have missed the memo that British history is somewhat complicated and bemoans the excess of male characters who attempt to scheme their way through the court proceedings. They complain of the constructed reality in which Elizabeth and Mary meet face-to-face within a barn, as well as claiming that Robbie is more deserving of accolades compared to her co-star. I simply refuse to play into this habit of comparing the two actresses against each other as if a competition. They were both absolutely phenomenal, and playing completely different and separable roles both in terms of narrative and character.

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While perhaps the less famous of the two Queens, Ronan skilfully portrays Mary Stuart. It is a tricky part to play: a character who is strong-willed and passionate, formidable and opinionated as well as young, naive and inexperienced. She throws herself headlong into situations in which she finds herself woefully ill-equipped and nevertheless she pushes forwards, heedless to the suggestions of those around her. In contrast to Elizabeth, who is the more reserved and more insular of the characters, Mary allows herself to be beguiled and seduced by Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden), who turns out to be undeserving of her affection. Furthermore, she can also be seen to be carefree and fun in the presence of her ladies maids. She gossips with them and dines with them and even plays a childish game on Lord Darnley when he first arrives at the castle. Elizabeth, in contrast, has a much more formal relationship with her attendees, with the women tiptoeing around Elizabeth’s whims. Not only does Mary demonstrate an open heart, but it proves Elizabeth’s fears entirely correct. You can see and predict it going wrong, and yet you still feel for her plight. Mary is subtly moved out of her position of power in favour of her husband while she sits powerless and pregnant. In a particular highlight, she witnesses the brutal murder of her trusted friend David Rizzio (Ismael Cruz Córdova) and utterly breaks down over his dead body. Sitting in the room following the event, she appears broken and empty. It is a fleeting moment of defeat for the character. However, even after she has birthed her child, she does not find herself within a stable position within her country. Her multiple marriages and her religion bring her to the attention of John Knox (David Tennant), who constantly speaks out against her ruling, labelling her a “strumpet Queen”. Despite her country and her support slipping out from under her fingers, Mary still holds onto what she believes is her birthright, as if this stubbornness can make it so in the face of the outright rebellion within her lands. This is even seen in her confrontation with Elizabeth and all the way until her final moments where she presents herself in a red gown as a Catholic martyr. She is constantly pursued by this dogged determination that she is in the right, and it goes to show that you can root for a character who makes wrong decisions. It does not make them any less of a character or a less worthy character, but merely flawed and three-dimensional, which is why I take umbrage to film reviews that unfairly suggest that for a character to be redeemable they mustn’t be polarising or have singular opinions.

It is interesting that the entire film shows Elizabeth’s life in contrast despite Mary’s decline and the fact that the audience can already see it going wrong. She is shown being jealous and upset at Mary’s good fortune. She first offers her sister Queen Robert Dudley (Joe Alwyn), her own lover, knowing that she cannot have him. She shows extreme regret and upset at Mary having happiness that she knows that she cannot enjoy. Even though Mary possesses her good looks and beauty, early in the film we see Elizabeth losing her own looks due to smallpox that leaves her horribly scarred. While the audience is presented the sight of Mary announcing her pregnancy, we see Elizabeth doggedly constructing paperwork Tudor roses. She sits, legs open, on the floor of her chamber, the Tudor roses swelling around the room. It is a clear symbolic gesture as to Elizabeth’s desires and wants, even though she knows she cannot have them. As she notes, she is more man than she is woman. She is more crown than she is human, at this point. She constantly is finding herself pulling back from her emotions and her own needs as a human in service of her position of power. Ultimately, this proves to be her success. While Mary enjoys all that Elizabeth wants, it shows that Elizabeth was right to isolate herself. She, unlike Mary, stays in control. No man tries to take away her seat of power, and she even shows willing for Mary to be her successor on the throne should she not produce an heir. She notes to her own cabinet the intelligence and bravery of her peer, showing her deep admiration for her fellow monarch. It is perhaps the juicier and more complex of the two roles. In one particular scene towards the end of the film, Robbie takes us on an acting masterclass as she almost breaks down in tears over her cousin’s fate, before a man calls her name and she remembers her place. Her face hardens, the tears stop. She is the fierce Queen once more. It is refreshing to see a historical figure who everybody thinks they already know inside out in a fresh light. No longer is Elizabeth viewed as the Virgin Queen who did not possess any feeling whatsoever. There is no sense of the brutish portrayal that is conveyed through her quotes of “I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a King”. Instead we are treated to a delightfully complex young woman who is struggling with the dual position of having to be a Queen while also having their own needs and desires that are impossible to have met within the society. She is forced into situations where she has to make impossible choices, which is how she is met with the necessary decision to execute Mary.

No line of dialogue is wasted within this film. With so much difficult politics concerning the line of succession, the Tudor line vs Stuart, the Protestant vs Catholic tension, as well as the complex relationships within both Mary and Elizabeth’s courts, every scene serves a particular purpose. It’s Josie Rourke’s feature film directorial debut after much stage experience, and I believe that this pays off. Every scene serves a particular purpose in developing the characters and moving the story forward. Though action is slow towards the beginning, with lots of dialogue as opposed to fighting, this is made up for in the latter half, when David Rizzio and Lord Darnley are swiftly dispatched in unpleasant fashion.

It would be remiss of me to talk about this film without mentioning the confrontation between the two Queens that is arguably the climax of the entire film. There are no large battles to be fought here, no gratuitous beheadings or cruel murders to be seen. Just two women, in a barn, talking to each other for the first time. It is theatrically staged, with billowing white sheets shielding the two women from seeing each other. It makes the audience wait and anticipate the moment when the two finally lock eyes. Arguably, this could be a sign of Elizabeth’s insecurity: not wanting to appear frail and ugly in front of Mary – a fact that she all but admits herself to Mary. It is clear to see Elizabeth’s quandary and you understand why she must steel herself against Mary, though it is difficult to see Mary’s point of view in this scene. For the entire story, she has been congenial with Elizabeth. She has written to her on many occasions, providing her love and her admiration, as well as her acceptance of Elizabeth’s position within England. She does not show an overt desire to take Elizabeth’s throne from her while she is living, rather to take it once Elizabeth has died. She believes that this is God’s will, but it is quite a leap she makes when she informs Elizabeth, “know that if you kill me, you kill your sister and you kill your Queen”, even calling Elizabeth her inferior. It is obvious why these words sting Elizabeth, and it is difficult to get behind. Mary has no bargaining power here, but she seems to forget herself within this new situation. She has been so used to being defiant and fighting with her words against the men that surround her, it leaves a bitter taste in the mouth in a scene that was otherwise productive between the two monarchs. It is in this scene that Rourke’s theatrical background really pays off. This is less film than it is play and the dialogue carries the scene through. It is the emotional beating heart of the entire experience and even though it is pretty much the one historical inaccuracy, it is an entire necessary scene in the narrative that is being told.

The cinematography within the film is gorgeous. We are treated to great shots of the rolling Scottish countryside in contrast to the claustrophobic and dank interiors of Mary’s castles, and the grand, lavish sights of Elizabeth’s palace. Both of our queens stand out fiercely against the backdrop with their brilliant red hair: Robbie’s wig in particular really shone on the screen. The costume and make up conducted on her did not glamorise the appearance of the famous monarch, but rather made her appear as frightening and formidable as she would have done in the day. The lack of beauty does not detract from the performance, but rather enhances it and helps you to understand the characterisation. Moreover, the sweeping score surrounds you and supports you into this narrative dimension – provided by Max Richter, who has been known to create swirling and imprisoning soundscapes.

5 stars

  • Directed by: Josie Rourke.
  • Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Margot Robbie, Jack Lowden, Joe Alwyn, David Tennant, Guy Pearce.
  • Highlights: The tête-à-tête of the two monarchs is undeniably the highlight, with Robbie’s distress at Mary’s execution being a close second.
  • Zinger of the film: “Think of Rizzio”, says Mary, Queen of Scots to her sodomising husband. Ouch. Didn’t think that one through, Mary.
  • I am confusion? While Elizabeth seems to have aged by the end of the film that leads to Mary’s execution, why does Mary look exactly the same as she did within the barn? What is in her crazy Scottish blood? Can I have some?
  • Further confusion: For a woman who has been raised in France from a young age, Mary somehow managed to hold onto that accent, despite dipping inbetween French and English (as one does) during conversations. Who has multilingual conversations? We get it, you know languages. We are inferior.
  • We are all inferior to Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie. Remember that.

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