Movie Review: Mary Queen of Scots

Mary Queen of Scots is a brilliant and timely film about what it means to be a woman with power. Excellently crafted and beautifully told this film is sure to do well this awards season. It is released in UK cinemas on 18 January 2019. Read my review in which I explain why I believe Mary Queen of Scots is an unmissable film and a great one to start the new year. 

The story

Queen of France at 16 and widowed at 18, Mary Stuart defies pressure to remarry. Instead, she returns to her native Scotland to reclaim her rightful throne. But Scotland and England fall under the rule of the compelling Elizabeth I. Each young Queen beholds her sister in fear and fascination. Rivals in power and in love, and female regents in a masculine world, the two must decide how to play the game of marriage versus independence.

The trailer

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The verdict

Considering how timely and how relevant this film feels I was surprised to discover that it was in production for 12 years. I suppose they were waiting for the perfect storm of the right cast, the right director and the right social climate; I’m not sure how much time and money would have been given to a film about women, politics and power 5 years ago. That being said, it isn’t preachy, and although it offers a lot to think about, it isn’t overwhelming and it doesn’t let themes get in the way of plot.

Both Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie are amazing in this and I’m sure will both be up for Oscar nominations this year. The only question is whether to nominate Margot Robbie for Best Actress or Best Supporting Actress. She delivers a spell-binding performance from under a prosthetic nose and the inches of white makeup Queen Elizabeth was so famous for and Saoirse Ronan as Queen Mary is so good that every time she is on screen I have to remind myself that there are other actors in the film.

A large part of that is down to the direction of Josie Rourke. Since the film is about women, directed by a woman, and starring two women, made at a time when women are being given more agency to tell their own stories, it is unsurprising that the focus of every scene is on women.

Image credit: Focus Features

The “female gaze” is most obvious in Ronan’s sex scenes in the film – what we are seeing is very much from the point of view of Queen Mary, and it is startling to see how this simple shift in perspective can be so powerful and revealing. I struggle to think of many other films which offer the same view point, even when the main character is a woman.

A long-time theatre director, first-time film director, Rourke makes the film feel almost like a play. The mirroring of the lives of Mary and Elizabeth, the artistry of the costumes, scenery, lighting, staging and use of imagery are all deftly handled; the literal unravelling of Elizabeth’s Tudor rose at the same time as the first Stewart king of England being born is a particularly nice touch. Along with her cinematographer, John Mathieson, Rourke also does an excellent job of bringing the early 1600s to life, evoking the works of Vermeer, Rembrandt, Caravaggio and Rubens.

However, as rich and as detailed as the film is Rourke does take some liberties with 21st Century tolerances. Adrian Lester is excellent as Lord Randolph, one of Queen Elizabeth’s councillors, and Gemma Chan also delivers a strong performance as one of Queen Elizabeth’s lady’s maids, however, it does seem odd that noblemen in the 1600s are so tolerant of a black Lord and that no one bats an eye at a woman of Chinese decent so high up in the English court. In Queen Mary’s court homosexuality is not only acknowledged but also tolerated.

None of this takes away from the brilliance of the film, it is just an interesting stylistic choice to make. Personally, I am curious how a black man and an Asian woman would rise to such prominence in an Elizabethan English court, but I suppose those stories would be films in themselves.

Despite all the technical genius of the film unfortunately what it ultimately lacks is heart. Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie are given so much space in the film that none of the other actors are given much of a chance when opposite them. David Tenant is brilliant as the bible-thumping preacher, John Knox; he shines when he is up on the pulpit, screaming about the evils of the Catholic Queen Mary, but when he shares a scene with Saoirse Ronan, his performance is starved of oxygen. The same is true of Adrian Lester, Guy Pearce, James McArdle, Brendan Coyle and Ian Hart, who are all excellent as scheming courtiers in both courts, but when they are opposite their queens the wind is suddenly out of their sails.

I realise it sounds whiney to complain that a film about women, starring women and directed by a woman, doesn’t give its male actors enough space on the screen, and maybe it highlights how little time female characters are given by male directors, but here I felt that it impacts on the film overall. Ronan and Robbie are given so much space to develop their own characters individually that they aren’t given much of a chance to develop any chemistry with any of the other performers.

When they do finally share a screen the chemistry between them is palpable; sparks fly and my hair stood on end, but it left my wondering where that feeling was for the rest of the film. With no one else able to hold a candle to either Margot Robbie or Saoirse Ronan they are left to shine alone, and the film is only at its best for the brief moments when when they are brought together.

Rating: 9/10

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