Mary, Queen of Scots: the real history behind the film
A note-perfect performance from the three-time Oscar nominee charges a darkly compelling, if factually questionable, 16th-century retelling
There are two differently mounted yet thematically similar films arriving this awards season that focus on female monarchs and how their relationships with other women led to profound change. In Yorgos Lanthimos’s bawdy, brutal comedy The Favourite, the mental state of Queen Anne is weaponised by two women vying for her affections and, in turn, increased power in both her palace and the country.
In Josie Rourke’s far more conventional, yet slickly entertaining Mary Queen of Scots, we see how the titular character clashes with Queen Elizabeth for control with the fates of many hanging in the balance. Tonally and visually, the two couldn’t be more different yet they both contain familiar observations about the swift sadism of life at the very top and how so much of the tension between these women was orchestrated by the men around them.
While the life of Queen Anne has historically received minimal screen time, the more obviously cinematic dynamic between Mary and Elizabeth has inspired a number of retellings. We’ve seen Katharine Hepburn, Vanessa Redgrave and Samantha Morton play Mary while Glenda Jackson, Helen Mirren and Cate Blanchett have taken on Elizabeth, film-makers ever-fascinated by the difficult bond shared by the pair.
Arguably it’s a tale that’s probably been told enough but there’s something undeniably tantalising about the idea of House of Cards developer Beau Willimon bringing his brand of murky corridor scheming to 16th-century politics. As with his Netflix show, there’s both a tight grasp of devilish powerplay and a slight over-reliance on soapy theatrics although the balance here mostly works. Think of it as more season one than season six.
After spending most of her childhood in France, Mary (Saoirse Ronan) is arriving back to Scotland as an 18-year-old widow. There are concerns about her reappearance from half-brother, and temporary ruler, James (James McArdle) and Protestant cleric John Knox (David Tennant). Her Catholicism is instantly divisive as is her unwillingness to be spoken down to by the men who are beneath her. Her arrival also ruffles feathers in England and pits her against her cousin Elizabeth (Margot Robbie) who, without child, is being pressured to name an heir. Mary sees herself as the instant candidate with Elizabeth in hushed agreement but those that circle the two queens fear for the future and start to plot, setting off a chain of events that threatens to destroy the two women.
The machinations of those who dominated the period might be familiar to many but Rourke and Willimon have crafted a juicy, darkly compelling drama that offers a sleek alternative to what’s come before. It’s hardly revolutionary or particularly revisionist but there’s enough here to make it feel like a worthy endeavour nonetheless. Rourke, the Donmar’s artistic director, has a great deal of experience with stage productions yet Mary Queen of Scots marks her film debut. Stage-to-screen transitions can often be patchy but Rourke makes for an accomplished film-maker, artfully crafting some stunning imagery and pacing her story like a thriller. But while she manages to turn a supporting character’s murder into one of the year’s most haunting, horrifying death scenes, she’s less adept at turning an extraneous, messily choreographed battle scene into anything remotely thrilling.
For the most part, Willimon does a nifty job at condensing a whole lot of information into what feels like a swift, two-hour running time. Historians have already labelled the film problematic from Mary’s Scottish accent (apparently it was French) to the film’s dramatic in-person confrontation between the two queens (apparently it never happened). But your annoyance with these deviations will depend on how you view the gap between history and historical drama and while there are some embellishments, they’re embellishments that have been added to previous adaptations and the primary facts appear relatively untainted, the truth shocking enough to propel the plot by itself.
The film’s most thrilling pleasure is a show-stopping lead performance from Ronan, who at 24 is quickly becoming one of the industry’s most consistently impressive young actors. After her sparky Oscar-nominated turn as a Greta Gerwig conduit in Lady Bird, she’s note-perfect as Mary: vulnerable, terrifying, strong, sexy and effortlessly dominant when taking charge of the men who are trying to outsmart her. It is an astonishingly confident and committed turn and, in a just year, she’d be showered with more awards attention. There is also a rare reminder of just how young Mary was, along with so many other monarchs of the past, and there’s a clandestine silliness to some of the scenes of her with her handmaidens, cannily conveying a side often underexplored.
Down in England however, things aren’t quite so successful. Much has already been made of Robbie’s transformation from one of the most desirable women in Hollywood to a queen ravaged by smallpox and reported jealousy of those she deemed more attractive. Yet Robbie, a skilled actor capable of illuminating lesser films such as Focus and Suicide Squad, never really convinces with the accent or the appearance and one can almost feel her focusing on both so much that she forgets to add much else to the role. It’s a glaring miscast that means one side of the film is always lacking, and given how many superior Elizabeths we’ve seen on big and small screens, it is the film’s biggest stumble. Yet Ronan dominates, both with screen time and presence and their much-discussed scene together does wield some power, despite some unnecessary visual trickery.
In a busy awards season and with a strangely late festival bow, it is possible that Mary Queen of Scots, and Ronan’s killer lead performance, might get unfairly overlooked. It would be a shame as it is a finely constructed drama, avoiding stuffiness without slipping into camp territory and while diehard historians might disapprove, everyone else will be supremely entertained.
Director: Josie Rourke
Writers: Beau Willimon (screenplay by), John Guy (based on the book “Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart” by) (as Dr. John Guy)