- Young Critic
Mary Queen of Scots
There is no clear-cut history; all we in the present can do is try to compile the most convincing of people’s perspectives of the period we want to study. However, it is easy to simply stand by one side’s version of events, as everything is written down and solved for you. This is dangerous and irresponsible for historians or artists to do.
Mary Queen of Scots looks at the historical journey of Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan) who in the 16th century was Queen of Scotland and claimed the English throne if her cousin Elizabeth (Margot Robbie) should die. However, as both Queens seek to survive in power, the men and counselors around them drag them down.
This film, based on the title alone, should indicate which perspective in history it is taking. It is essentially a biopic of Mary, but it washes over many of the darker aspects of Mary, by theorizing and lying to us about the woman she really was. The Mary we’re presented is a progressive and liberal leader, who believes in equality and is a merciful Queen. History shows us a different picture, thus the film tries to juggle its historical loyalty with the woman they are trying to substitute in. Queen Mary was an ultra-catholic and intolerant monarch who conspired many times to murder Queen Elizabeth (the film lightly skims over these conspiracies) and take her throne. This doesn’t mean Mary should be shown in a tyrannical light, an ambitious and ruthless ruler similar to Cate Blanchett’s Elizabeth I could have been spun out in the hands of the right director.
Director Josie Rourke has made the jump to directing for the screen after being a theater director for some time; and this is noted in the actresses’ performances, where she gets some stellar portrayals. Rourke is effective at portraying grandeur with sweeping panoramic shots of the Scottish countryside with an added swelling score. However, the tone of her film and editing are choppy; character motivations are betrayed and forgotten when convenient, and background characters are shuffled in and out so that you can barely tell them apart. This film, coming from screenwriter Beau Willimon, creator of House of Cards, demanded more political tension and backstabbing, but instead we simply wait on Mary and Elizabeth to make the first move (when they do it’s the last scene). Given that this was a great opportunity to give about a feminist message of women leaders, it was disappointing to follow two Queens whose actions seem fueled by emotion while the men are seemingly the more sensible of the lot.
The two actresses in the regal roles are astounding. Ronan has the script written in her favor, but that shouldn’t take away from her stellar portrayal. Robbie had the harder part in this film, as the script indicates the English to be the villains; but the Australian actress is able to give Elizabeth a sense of autonomy as she is pushed and pulled about by her counselors. You end up wanting to see more of her portrayal of the English monarch, who is almost more likeable than Mary, but unfortunately the film focuses more on the squabbles of the Scottish court.
In the end Mary Queen of Scots leaves much to be desired, both in terms of history and narrative. The end result feels more like a propaganda piece for Scottish nationalism that makes use of two fabulous actresses at the top of their game.