Film review, by Jason Day, of Mary Queen of Scots (2018), the historical account of the monarch’s romances, rise and fall, alongside her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I. Starring Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie.
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With the Scottish throne vacant after the King’s death, the heir to the throne is Queen Mary of France. Young, beautiful, headstrong and intelligent but with a deep emotional need for love, she arrives to a rapturous reception and quickly establishes a louche, dissolute court.
Despite living hundreds of miles away, her cousin Queen Elizabeth I is beguiled and enchanted by accounts of her and defends Mary’s many questionable political decisions, despite pressure from the English government to marry Mary off to someone the politicians can use to control her.
Mary marries her own choice of husband, a decision that is the catalyst for her swift, disastrous fall from grace.
Review, by @Reelreviewer
The history pedants will be coughing on the dust of centuries old documents after watching this account of the famous monarch’s haphazard reign when they hear the Queen talking in a Scottish accent and other umpteen liberties, based on the book by John Guy.
I’m usually one of those accuracy obsessed people, fuming and foaming at dramatic licence being stretched beyond credibility – but my review of Braveheart (1993) is another matter best left to one side for now.
Mary Queen of Scots didn’t quite get me as hot under the collar as Mel Gibson’s production. It is, like that movie, a handsome film to look at and ticks most of the boxes in terms of a historical epic.
I loved the bare, barren score, echoing that of the Victorian sequences in Sally Potter’s Orlando (1992), although the strings section here throbs and thumps unobtrusively in the background, unlike Orlando where the gorgeous music overwhelmed the visuals.
The aesthetic side of this film is never in doubt. Both Queen’s are stunningly costumed, the hairstyling is impeccable (even Good Queen Bess’ ginger fright wig post-small pox – yes, you get to see her during that phase, pustules and scabs and all – is a sight to behold) and the cameraman tactfully captures the lush heather and fern landscapes of Scotland. In spite of the chill up your kilt, a man would happily plump for a weekend getaway here.
This film also scores by pushing hard on the feminist gas pedal and blatantly spelling a few things out. Much has been made in book, film, TV and play before that these were two women at the top of the society, pitted against each other and having to deal on a daily basis with the machinations of all-male governments that worked for them.
Thankfully what could have been anti-male dialect is kept to a minimum. Mary is portrayed as a strong, if romantically naive woman, manipulated into making poor decisions, rather than a sexy but dumb bimbo – it’s refreshing to see her as more than a silly heart.
That isn’t to say the script is always convincing. Mary and Elizabeth never met in real-life, although they wrote each other frequently. For dramatic purposes, they have previously been depicted as having a single, fleeting acquaintance. Here, intriguingly, that conference is staged with the two in an isolated barn, strewn inside with diaphanous cloth hanging to dry. At either end of the building, the two monarchs pace from side-to-side, working their way toward each other. The dialogue is ripe with anticipation and hesitancy. Eventually, they look at each other – and there it all falls apart.
Mary assumes superiority and Elizabeth’s lip trembles – she quakes in her boots. But would she have cried? This woman, so famed for her composure and wit? Would she have accepted being spoken down to, especially by someone who was a refugee? The artfully written interplay between them vanishes suddenly and gives way to bargain bin banter.
Some other smart additions. Both Queens have ethnically diverse courts – Bess Hardwick (who, in real-life, was the second richest and most powerful woman in England after Elizabeth) is played by Gemma Chan. Complete fantasy but, again, it fits in with the modernist take on the history. The exteriors of Hardwick’s mighty home, Hardwick Hall – with more glass than wall – is featured heavily in the film.
Mary and her court are also presented as being quite sexually progressive. She admits and adores a gay musician (and later secretary) and freely forgives him when he sleeps with her alcoholic husband Darnley (Jack Lowther) on their wedding night. Indeed, she goes on to instigate a three-way marriage between them – and later men. Titillating for today’s viewer, but this modern attitude to marital relations is more akin to Game of Thrones than post-medieval British royalty.
Even Darnley’s father (Brendan Coyle) doesn’t appear too perturbed by his son’s sexual inclinations – it makes good blackmail material, after all.
I’ve avoided writing anything about the leading ladies performances deliberately until the conclusion of this review – keeping the best until last.
Robbie is an actress who increasingly proves she is worthy of your attention. Is she a young Meryl Streep? So chameleon-like is she that you can only just make out it is her behind the scabrous skin and layers of make-up. Previously we have seen and heard the strident, striking, stentorian look and delivery of your Flora Robson, Bette Davis, Glenda Jackson, Cate Blanchett and Helen Mirren. Here, Robbie is a girlish, gushing ruler, with a high-pitched voiced, tremulous, intemperate and frequently annoyed with her male council but in thrall to her French/Scots relative. In one telling moment, she adjusts her clothing to resemble a ‘bump’ and lets the sun cast a shadow of her so it looks like she is pregnant. This could have been ridiculous with another actress, but Robbie handles it subtly. You believe that Elizabeth is lacking something in her life, but that it never fully holds her back.
Another scene brilliantly joins them together. Elizabeth, frustrated personally and professionally, takes her anger out on a paper flower depiction of the Tudor Rose she is creating. She cannot make it perfect and sits on her floor, legs wide open, with the reds of the Lancastrian parts of that emblem strewn out on the floor. Mary is then depicted having given birth to her son, legs similarly akimbo, but with blood stained sheets in place of the flowers. Mary need not accept Elizabeth as the child’s godmother to better connect them as ‘parents’.
Ronan’s Scottish accent may be historically inaccurate, is actually perfect. She is a sight to behold as Mary, too. With that arresting, basilisk-like stare and a rich and forthright approach, she portrays Mary as more human than we have seen before. There are anachronisms, but she grasps at the opportunity to shed a new light on a much maligned historical keystone without appearing or sounding as if she has been biased after ‘boned up’ on historical text or TV. I liked her Mary much more than any other. She’s not backwards in coming in forwards – she may have done quite well and been more appreciated today.
Cast & credits
Director: Josie Rourke. 2hr 4mins (124mins). Focus Features/Perfect World Pictures/Working Title Films. (15)
Producers: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Debra Hayward.
Writer: Beau Willimon.
Camera: John Mathieson.
Music: Max Richter.
Sets: James Merifield.
Saoirse Ronan, Margot Robbie, Jack Lowden, Gemma Chan, Joe Alwyn, David Tennant, Martin Compton, Adrian Lester, Brendan Coyle, Ismael Cruz Cordova.