Review: Mary Queen of Scots

A strong, well made drama focusing on an intriguing period of Tudor history, Mary Queen of Scots boasts great performances and technical strengths.

Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan) returns to Scotland from France with a claim to the English throne, held by Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie). The two correspond while the men around them counsel for and against their claims, and intervening years follow Mary’s story via multiple challenges; while Elizabeth mulls over her respect, jealousy and fear of Mary and her position.

I had forgotten Mary’s story, but realise now why it was a strong choice for a film. The two women rule at a time when queens as sovereigns would have been almost unimaginable only decades earlier, both subject to the whims of angry men while they try to stay on top.

It’s through this prism that the choice of theatrical director Josie Roarke is key. That background adds urgency and class to debates and conversations, none boring or featuring unnecessary chat. What’s more, at a time when female directors should be – but are not – in the ascendancy, her viewpoint is central to how the film focuses intently on the flawed, powerful female leaders.

Roarke’s work with the cast cements her as a director to watch, and the female perspective rather than the male gaze means we see both as complex, multidimensional rulers, without titillation or sidelining by insignificant male characters. Her staging of increasingly fraught confrontations ingratiates and engrosses you in the stakes – battle and fight scenes pack a convincing punch, but heavier blows are landed in debate.

She is aided by a great script from Beau Willimon, who excellently crafts those detailed scenes. His focus on the queens’ anxieties and doubts manifests in their letters and speeches, illuminating mutual respect, highlighting respective neuroses, and foreshadowing an (ultimately final) difference of opinion, while strident addresses to courts resonate with ferocity.

The script also convincingly portrays the unsightly antipathy towards Mary, with her council (full of men) turning against and manipulating her. Both queens’ ladies in waiting are less tittering idiots and more supportive teams conversely, a unique choice we don’t often see in such films (with the obvious recent exception of The Favourite!).

I do have criticisms – the film rushes to a conclusion, and a fictional meeting between the queens is unnecessary, and might have worked better through a visionary depiction of their letters, showing them conversing in imagined debate. It does however get both actresses onscreen, evoking a sense of sisterhood (underlined by arrogance) via kindly (if barbed) words.

Another issue was that the Elizabethan court’s casting – Robbie alongside Guy Pearce – was so strong that a diminished focus compared to Mary left me wanting more (an Elizabethan Cinematic Universe maybe). That’s part criticism and part compliment, as Mary is the clear focus – it’s just that they outdid themselves with the casting, and it feels a bit of a waste.

A regal yet doomy score from Max Richter


is soundtracked by a continual refrain of marching drums, played at one point in Mary’s life and underscoring the film, almost as a constant foreshadowing. Other orchestral elements are very atmospheric, and thankfully it’s not your usual bagpipe bonanza.

John Mathieson’s cinematography, and the choice of locations for shooting, provide a tangible, earthy feel, with stunning Scottish vistas of valleys and hills juxtaposed with intimate, dark and oppressive rocky interiors. These then contrast greatly with England’s sun dappled, golden stone mansions and palaces, almost as a reminder of the imbalance between the nations.

It’s honestly surprising neither actress was Oscar nominated. Ronan is unbelievably good in nearly every role, and Mary is another she utterly disappears into. It’s remarkable that despite being in her mid 20s, she can convey growth and changes in Mary over decades, balancing rage, intimacy, regret and sorrow and bringing each forward at the drop of a hat. She’s seriously impressive, and as it turns out, inspired casting.

Robbie is a spectacular surprise, transforming into Elizabeth with a flawless British accent and the queen’s distinctive appearance, crooked nose, pox scars and all. She also effortlessly presents the queen’s aging and growing melancholy, evoking an air of strident independence tinged with regret and jealousy. Once again an Australian makes a remarkable Elizabeth I!

Guy Pearce’s excellent interplay with Robbie as Elizabeth’s “wife” and trusted advisor William Cecil is quick, witty and edged with a scheming air, Cecil a man of loyalty straining at the leash to do what he thinks is right, but never against her wishes. A series of characters cross the divide, notably Jack Lowden’s Lord Darnley, a Catholic in Elizabeth’s court determined to wile his way into Mary’s affections.

Both manipulative and manipulated, Lowden’s complex performance has shades of empathy, disdain, violence and true affection. Adrian Lester’s Lord Randolph is the bemused ambassador stuck between a rock and a hard place, the actor wryly playing the role as one shuttling back and forth to no end.

Joe Alwyn’s Robert Dudley, as both Elizabeth’s favourite and a pawn in her game of thrones against Mary, is another snooty, regal smoothie much like in The Favourite, but edged with disdain and sadness that his wish to marry Elizabeth is cast aside, and his role as a unifier – the piece of meat married off, so often a female character’s fate – evoked in straining to deal with the hand he’s been dealt.

Ian Hart and David Tennant represent the Scottish anti Catholic sentiment, Hart’s Lord Maitland a master manipulator struggling to repress a sneer, and never far from making Mary aware of his disgust and disdain toward her. Tennant’s incredibly hirsute John Knox meanwhile is a Protestant preacher firing constant invective Mary’s way in the actor’s shouty, distinctive Scottish brogue.

Finally, there are interesting turns from James McArdle (as Mary’s torn and confused half brother), Martin Compston (as the steadfast Earl of Bothwell, Mary’s sworn protector with a twist), and Ismael Cruz Cordova (as David Rizzio, Mary’s confidante and an unexpected but significant figure in her changing fortunes).

This film was robbed in the Oscar nominations – it’s one of the best Tudor films I’ve seen for modern audiences, with a pair of great performances leading a gripping story.

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