Mary Queen of Scots Review: A Riveting, if Ahistorical, Royal Drama

MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS

While it won't win any awards for historical accuracy, Josie Rourke's royal drama shines thanks to some gorgeous cinematography and the performances of Saiorse Ronan and Margot Robbie.

Whenever someone watches a Hollywood movie that focuses on a historical figure, they must ask themselves, “how important is accuracy?” The answer will invariably depend on how versed the person is on the figure in question. Those who are knowledgeable on the subject will almost inevitably find themselves angry at some major or minor inaccuracy, while most of those who are ignorant will more than likely take the film as mostly truth without bothering to do any further research. Taken in the extreme, both these viewpoints are misguided, for all film is fiction. Even the most accurate movie must compress timelines, turn several people into a composite character, and most importantly, make the protagonist sympathetic to modern audiences. More often than not, that means giving them an outlook that is more in line with modern thinking than the perspective of their contemporaries. As such, it is important to judge Mary Queen of Scots on its merits as a movie and not for its adherence to fact. As a movie, it entertains, even if it does not educate.

While the film is a biopic of Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan), much of the film is focused on Queen Elizabeth (Margot Robbie) and the power play between the two most powerful women in the British Isles. Beau Willimon‘s no stranger to in-depth explorations of the machinations of power from his shows House of Cards and The First, and his script similarly explores the frustrations and expectations of the women who seek and try to maintain said power. 

The film’s strength relies on the performances of the two leads, and neither Ronan nor Robbie disappoint. Ronan gives Mary a warm strength, carrying herself with dignity and confidence without seeming cold. Even in her most passionate moments, her anger and sadness never engulfs her entirely, giving her a regal presence even at her most vulnerable. Especially impressive is Ronan’s ability to switch between an impressive Scottish Brogue and flawless French at a moment’s notice.

And then there’s Robbie’s refreshing take on Queen Elizabeth, her version of the Virgin Queen a woman who feels herself being swallowed whole by the crown. Behind Robbie’s strong performance is an undeniable weariness. While the film is indisputably on Mary’s side, Elizabeth is no villain. This sympathetic portrayal of Elizabeth was perhaps unavoidable (both American and UK audiences seem to have a soft spot for her), but it gives the film a heart that keeps it from being a more typical tale of royal intrigue.

The rest of the cast does admirably, but with so many members of both the English and Scottish court they often don’t get much of a chance to shine. While there are many duplicitous agents in Mary’s court, most of them blend together with one main exception: John Knox (ex-Doctor David Tennant). Knox, a Presbyterian minister and virulent anti-Catholic who leads a public crusade against Mary and eventually instigates an English-backed civil war. Tennant’s wild eyes and deep Scottish brogue lend the role a fiery passion that makes him the most memorable of Mary’s antagonists.

The fact that the rest of the cast seems to blend together is a result of probably the biggest flaw of Mary Queen of Scots: too much story in too little time. The film follows Mary from her return to Scotland from France after the death of her first husband, Francis II, in 1561 to her abdication of the throne in 1567 (with a coda of her death in 1587). Between those two ends, Mary details a civil war; her courtship of her second husband, Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden); the birth of their child; a scandal involving Mary’s adviser, David Rizzio (Ismael Cruz Cordova), which leads to the disintegration of the royal marriage and both Rizzio and Lord Darnley’s death; and Mary’s third marriage with Lord Barthwell (Martin Compston), all while also following Elizabeth’s reaction to Mary’s reign. It’s a lot to pack into two hours, and while it isn’t confusing to follow, the events of Mary’s life (almost all of which could be the focus of films in their own right) seem truncated and Mary Queen of Scots feels shallow as a result.

Mary Queen of Scots focuses on emotional beats more than historical ones, which keeps the audience’s interest. However, the film would have been stronger had it reined in its focus to a specific event in Mary’s life.

If nothing else, the film is the perfect tourism ad for Scotland, as John Mathieson’s cinematography offers a lush, gorgeous view of its period setting. There are countless striking vistas of its mountains and valleys, its rocky beaches and verdant forests. The love of the Scottish landscape even extends to the castle of Holyrood, which is a cavernous stone castle that seems like an extension of nature as opposed to something manmade. Contrast that with England, where only Elizabeth’s buildings are shown. As opposed to the haunting and romantic Holyrood, Hatfield House (Elizabeth’s home) seems stuffy and boxed in, with wooden interiors instead of stone. The difference in locations highlights the dichotomy between the passionate Mary and world-weary Elizabeth.

How accurate is Mary Queen of Scots? Accurate enough for its purpose. Many of these events in the movie did happen, albeit not exactly as the movie portrays. There will be quite a few people upset that they had several people of color in the cast (most notably black actor Adrian Lester portraying Thomas Randolph, Elizabeth’s ambassador to Scotland), as well as Lord Darnley sleeping with Rizzio (which might have happened) and Mary’s rather progressive views on Rizzio’s sexuality (Even if Rizzio was queer, we don’t know what Mary thought). To those people I say: “Lay back and think of fictional England.”

Mary Queen of Scots charges forth to revolution Friday, December 14.

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About Marshall Estes

Marshall Estes is a Chicago-based film critic and contributor to Alcohollywood. He is also one half of the defunct Youtube criticism series Twin Cinema, along with fellow Alcohollywood contributor Theo Estes.

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