Film review: Mary Queen of Scots

Pauline McLeod / 16 January 2019

A feminist take on the relationship between two queens is visually stunning.

Most of us know the Machiavellian goings-on from all those dry old school books, the franchise has been retold countless times in films, theatre and on TV. And it’s true, there’s something about Mary that is undeniably beguiling.

But is there really the appetite for yet another stiffly-corseted period piece about Catholic Scottish regent, Mary Stuart, imprisoned for 19 years by the Protestant English queen, Elizabeth 1 before finally ordering her execution?

Well, in this instance, yes because acclaimed British theatre director Josie Rourke, in her feature film debut, casts a refreshing feminist eye on the brutal 16th century where chauvinism and misogyny ruled supreme. No text book stuffiness here. In fact, this thoroughly modern take on the past, which certainly has its artistic anomalies, doesn’t let fact get in the way of a good story.

Using some broad brush strokes, award-winning screenwriter Beau Willimon, creator of the American House of Cards, who studied the many letters the women exchanged over the years, has rewritten history and decided they should meet.

Why, is not entirely clear although it is thrilling to watch two of the most exciting actresses of their generation going head to head in what becomes a highly-charged, confrontational exchange.

Mary is portrayed with sassy resilience by Irish actress Saoirse Ronan. Only 24, already three-times Oscar-nominated, the soft Scottish accent she perfected never slips and neither does the fluent French she learned for the role. Margot Robbie (an Oscar nom for I, Tonya) is also rather wonderful as Elizabeth 1.

Her transformation is tragic and startling when she’s horribly disfigured by the smallpox she caught when she was 29 and which Robbie profiles with a moving dignity.

The Australian’s impeccable upper crust inflection is so flawless it could cut glass and she gives an equally fearless performance as Elizabeth, a woman more in control of her emotions than her mouthy distant cousin, but lonely beyond belief.

She’s childless, too which basically is at the heart of the matter in this time of religious upheaval. Because who will succeed her? Especially after Mary produces an heir from husband number two, the morally weak Lord Darnley, played with a sly and seedy cunning by Jack Lowden.  

From the magnificent mountains of Glen Coe to the Pinewood Studios sets for Holyrood and beyond, the production values are breathtaking and easily matched by the creations of costume designer Alexandra Byrne, who is back on familiar territory - she won the Oscar for Elizabeth: The Golden Age, which starred Margot’s acting idol and fellow Aussi, Cate Blanchett.

At the heart of the machinations and plotting is a scattering of morally suspect politicos who are played by a dizzying range of terrific actors.

In an almost unrecognisable turn, with full-on, overgrown beard, David Tennant is completely terrifying as Mary’s number one nemesis, Scotland’s powerful Protestant leader, John Knox whilst Guy Pearce, as Elizabeth’s primary advisor for 40 years, William Cecil, exudes a silky, ruthless charm.

For all its intriguing modernity, Mary Queen Of Scots plods a wee bit too episodically at times. Still, it manages to stay absorbing and cinematically it is beyond stunning.

Mary Queen of Scots opens on January 18 rated Certificate 15.

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