Mary, Queen of Scots
Directed by Josie Rourke
Screenplay by Beau Williamson
Based on “Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart” by John Guy
Starring Saoirse Ronan, Margot Robbie, Jack Lowden, Joe Alwyn, David Tennant, Guy Pierce
I have a fascination with period pieces, especially those that look at royalty of the past. For when religion governed all that was just, monarchy was seen as a symbol of world power. Though her story is less known, Mary, Queen of Scots was someone who spent much of her life away from the throne. Her father had been killed at a very young age and she was sent to France to grow up while the country was ruled by regents.
Josie Rourke’s “Mary Queen of Scots” explores Mary’s life as she returns to Scotland, a widow in 1561. Academy Award – nominated Saoirse Ronan plays the role of the queen, someone who returns to a Scotland fraught with the dangerous political situation in her home country. The biggest threat to her crown was not her own will, but that of her cousin, Queen Elizabeth played by Margot Robbie.
Based on a biography from John Guy, Beau Williamson’s script focuses on conflict between the two countries in the late 1500’s. As rival factions start to form between the Scottish Catholics and Protestants, England looks to seize power, folding the country into a greater kingdom. John Knox, played by David Tennant is the most prominent in the film as an instigator in factions that divide the small country.
On the English side, William Cecil played by Guy Pierce is an advisor to Queen Elizabeth. He also is portrayed as an instigator of the wedge that develops between the two cousins. Robert Dudley, played by Joe Alwyn is somewhat stuck in the middle as a pawn that never really becomes a pawn. His is an interesting performance though as Elizabeth’s lover.
The picturesque cinematography by John Mathieson really captures the essence of Scotland with its towering stone walls and lush greenery. But he also captures the deep seated infighting between religious factions that we’ve seen time and again. The way Rourke stages his shots is akin to “Braveheart” or “Gladiator”: swiftly violent, but with a purpose. Ronan is very much a leader and someone who earns our faith and trust in the opening frames; someone who will lead her people through the gates of Hell if necessary.
For a film that purports to focus on Mary Stuart, the focus really is on her undoing, much to the film’s undoing. We see a political power struggle between two countries and with one’s own country. Mary, who could not keep a husband specifically because she was such a powerful leader, is constantly on the run.
By the time we get to the third act, where Mary and Elizabeth actually meet for the first time, we’re sure that this will work out between two cousins, that they can live in harmony. History has other plans, of course. Which brings me back to the focus of the film. As much as the film demonstrates Mary’s prowess and her courage, Elizabeth is on her heels as are their respective conspirators.
Margot Robbie’s performance as Elizabeth is grand and austere.
The story really frames Mary as a lessor figure because she didn’t stop the constant challenges to her own authority as she tried to bring two countries together. If the biography that the film is based on is to be believed, Ms. Ronan’s performance is no less grand, but I think the constant wear on the character makes her ultimate fate much less impactful in this story.
The film’s strength lies in its costume and makeup design as the late 1500’s are brought to life. From the pageantry of royalty to the violence of war torn peoples and villages, the look and the feel of this film is authentic.
“Mary Queen of Scots” had the unenviable task of following up 2017’s “Darkest Hour” as a late year historical piece. In an overly complicated way, it misses.
2.5 out of 4