Mary Queen of Scots is a bit of a lacklustre affair. The lines between fact and fiction are heavily blurred, leaving us with a film that tries too hard to be modern and forgets its own historical significance.
⭐ ⭐ ½
Mary Queen of Scots follows the life of 16th century heir to the Scottish throne, Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan), who returns to Scotland upon the death of her first husband, the King of France. By taking her rightful place as the Queen of Scotland, she threatens the legitimacy of the English throne, which was then held by her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie). Mary Stuart takes actions to maintain her claim to England as her homeland is torn apart by volatile politics and warring religious beliefs.
Mary Queen of Scots is one of those films that’s hard to place. It’s lengthy and repetitive and keeps us at a distance, never allowing us the opportunity to truly connect with any of its characters. Some of this may come down to first time film director Josie Rourke, whose background has largely been in theatre. She shoots her film a bit like a theatre production, regularly using wide shots to fit multiple players into one shot. Creating a barrier between the characters and the audience, Rourke’s approach causes the film to lose some of its intimacy, and in turn our sympathy towards Mary.
Saoirse Ronan takes control of the story in her usual strong form, but while Ronan is certainly fierce, her performance lacks the enchantment she’s brought to other recent roles, such as in Lady Bird and Brooklyn. It feels like she hasn’t quite managed to grasp Mary Stuart’s motivations for her actions, so the importance of some of the political moves Mary managed to pull off in her short reign are lost in the film.
As Queen Elizabeth I, Margot Robbie very much fades into the background, which is a shame as this was an opportunity for her to break the mould and put forward a very different performance to what we’ve seen from her before. Her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth lacks the hardened personality that we’ve come to expect from past performances (e.g. Cate Blanchett). Instead, she delivers a weeping, insecure woman who’s overwhelmed by the burden of the crown. Whilst I don’t mind taking a more sensitive approach to the historical figure, Robbie takes it too far and quickly becomes a dribbling, frustrating mess.
Mary Queen of Scots doesn’t shy away from the brutality of the time, showing both graphic rape scenes and death scenes, but it also attempts to present some modern ideas. There’s more than a bit of creative licence taken, and it ultimately feels out of place in a historical drama.
There are some lovely cinematic shots of the rugged Scottish landscapes and the costume design is stunning. There’s also a strong supporting cast that includes the likes of Guy Pearce, David Tennant and James McArdle, but the film doesn’t use any of this talent to its full potential. Overall, Mary Queen of Scots pales in comparison to other period pieces such as Elizabeth, Shakespeare in Love and The Other Boelyn Girl. It’s not a bad film, I just wanted more.
Mary Queen of Scots is available in Australian films from January 18
Image (c) Universal Pictures 2019