Film Review – Mary Queen of Scots

Mary Queen of Scots

Mary Queen of Scots

Any film set around the historical events of the Elizabethan era and its ruler, Queen Elizabeth I, I am going to see. There is an audience for these historical dramas both on the small and big screen as time and again new versions recreating the events during this time period continue to be made. Mary Queen of Scots is the seventh film or short that has depicted some portion of Mary’s life.

The film begins where it ends in 1587. Mary (Saoirse Ronan) brought to a platform for her beheading and moments before her sentence is carried out, her drab dress is ripped off to reveal a blood red dress. Mary is going to make herself a martyr for Scotland. The film then goes back to 1561 as Mary arrives on the shore of Scotland from France where her husband King Francis II has died. Mary is determined to take hold of what is rightfully hers and has been held in her stead. Her half-brother James, Earl of Moray (James McArdle), welcomes her back to Holyrood Castle. Her arrival back on the island is not good news for everyone. Queen Elizabeth (Margot Robbie) is not stable in her reign over her lands. She is not married and has no children. She has a plaything in Sir Robert Dudley (Joe Alwyn – and you might be slightly confused if you see a double feature with The Favourite), but at this point in Elizabeth’s reign, she has already decided that she will not marry and forever be a “Virgin Queen” much to the chagrin of her trusted advisor William Cecil (Guy Pearce). Mary threatens Elizabeth’s throne, and there is constant back and forth about who rules over what, who Mary can marry, and who will reign if Elizabeth dies. In Mary’s land, there is infighting about whom should advise her and what actions she should take against Elizabeth and that thorn in her side, John Knox (David Tennant). There is no peace for either queen.

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The script is written by Beau Willimon based on the book Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart by John Guy. The film is directed by the first-time director Josie Rourke. There are some risks taken with this film, and not all of them worked well for this reviewer. First and foremost, this a dramatic reinterpretation of historical facts and as much as I loved the passionate and bullish performances by Robbie and Ronan, the film is merely a glossy presentation with a modern twist with some actual events thrown in for good measure. The film serves more like a powerful vehicle to show off Ronan’s dramatic talent and Robbie’s new-found range than to enlighten anyone about what actually happened to Mary and her relationship with Elizabeth. In a way, the fictional meeting of the two characters in a remote washing hut was really to drive home how arrogant Mary was and how insecure Elizabeth was, but it also solidified for the audience why Elizabeth locked her up and threw away the key.

Unlike any other historical drama film, the diversity of roles in Mary Queen of Scots is unmatched. It is not historically accurate, but at this point, the reality is this film is not trying to be a history lesson. Most notably, Gemma Chan plays Mary’s head lady-in-waiting, Bess, and Adrian Lester plays Lord Randolf, a frequent emissary from Elizabeth to Mary. The addition of Ismael Cruz Cordova as David Rizzio, Mary’s court musician, turned gay best friend who had an affinity for dresses, is an embellishment of who Rizzio really was, using him also as a catalyst to Mary finding out her new husband was gay. There are whispers of truth in Rizzio’s depiction including his unfortunate and bloody death.

Along with the modernization of the cast is taking the unusual step of making the James, the Earl of Moray, look like an emo band member. I could not get past the interesting use of eyeliner, and his thick long hair often kept off his face with what looked like those elastic headbands, but surely it was leather for the film.

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The world of Mary is juxtaposed with Elizabeth’s world in many ways throughout the film. Mary’s castle is dark, run-down, and gives off the feeling of being isolated in a cold place no matter how much Mary tries to liven it up. Elizabeth’s castle is all light, beautifully furnished, and gives off a stately feel despite the court of men doubting her ability. Elizabeth has a prominent nose and suffers from the pox that scars her face, and she continually compares herself to the young Mary. Even in the final minutes of the film, Mary is still beautiful and has not aged a day while Elizabeth looks old and stately underneath using her iconic wigs and makeup. The film is continually comparing the two worlds of these prominent women, illustrating the many ways in which they differ, for better or worse.

While the film excels at dramatic acting, showcasing Scotland’s beautiful landscapes, and gorgeous costumes, Mary Queen of Scots fell very short of being an accurate representation of what happened with their relationship. The general gist is there, but the film is so much more interested in the dialogue and giving Ronan and Robbie great lines and sparring partners. It could have been accomplished but with a better nod to the history of both. If you casually know the history of both of these women or nothing at all, the film will be a fantastic experience as you take in the culture of the time period and how powerful in their own way each of these women were in a time where they were the lesser sex. They only arrived at their positions because they did not have brothers. If you are a history buff or know enough about this time from other films, documentaries, and books, the film will come off as a Hollywood adaptation of history, revel in the best parts of it and roll your eyes at the liberties taken. Mary Queen of Scots is not what I thought it would or should be, but it did give Saoirse Ronan another feather in her acting cap.




Sarah resides in Dallas where she writes about films and trailers in her spare time when she is not taking care of her animals at the zoo.

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