For some time now I’ve been eagerly awaiting the release of the newest film to focus on the tumultuous and tragic life of Mary, Queen of Scots and her tempestuous relationship with her cousin Elizabeth I.
The film focuses primarily on the fraught relationship between Mary, Queen of Scots (Saoirse Ronan) and Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie). Once Mary returns from her youth in France, she finds herself confronted by her scheming Scottish lords, a disloyal husband, and by the machinations of her cousin and rival Elizabeth. Despite her best efforts, Mary is ultimately deposed by her lords (who are egged on by David Tenant’s fiery and bigoted John Knox), flees to England, and is ultimately executed for her participation in a plot against Elizabeth’s life and throne.
While the film is more historically accurate than some, it does contain what has become something of a requirement in films about these two feuding monarchs: a face-to-face meeting that never (so far as we know) actually occurred. In this meeting, arguably the film’s climax, Elizabeth finally reveals the truth: that she has long crafted her own persona around her fear of her cousin and rival queen. However, and just as importantly, she also asserts that it is precisely Mary’s most noteworthy qualities–her impetuousness, her heightened emotion, her youth–that have ultimately brought about her downfall. Elizabeth, meanwhile, continues to hold onto her throne and her power.
Ultimately, the film seems to agree with Elizabeth. Mary is passionate and intelligent, but she refuses to put her duty to country above her own wishes and desires. What’s more, she tends to be far too naive to be able to survive the cutthroat world of her Scottish nobility, who balk at her efforts to bring them to heel. She also allows herself to fall perilously in love with Darnley and indulges her fondness for her Italian secretary David Rizzio to a degree that leaves her open to an attack from her disaffected brothers, particularly her brother Moray. (Somewhat implausibly, the film suggests that Mary is totally okay with Rizzio’s explicit queerness).
The film is visually splendid, and the costumes rustle and glitter with the wealth of the era. There are also some truly splendid shots of the Scottish scenery. Having just returned from an all-too-brief sojourn in that country, I can assure you that the films’ cinematography does it complete justice. Yet Mary struggles to make this beautiful land her own, her many years in France creating a distance between herself and her nobles that she proves incapable of effectively bridging.
What really makes the film shine, however, are the performances. Ronan does an excellent job as the youthful Queen of Scots, bringing her signature brand of fiery passion and steely determination to the role. Ronan’s Mary is a woman determined to forge her own path, regardless of what others advise her to do. She does a fine job at conveying the inner strength that motivated and sustained Mary through some of the darkest moments of her life, though at times her portrayal gives the doomed Scottish queen a bit too much credit. (I’ll try not to nitpick her accent, which still sounds more Irish than Scottish, and yes I know the real Mary would most likely have sounded French and not Scottish in any case).
As great as Ronan is at capturing Mary’s fiery spirit, it is Robbie who truly shines as Elizabeth (full confession: I’m Team Elizabeth, now and forever). Though at times she is wracked by her sense of vulnerability in the face of Mary’s charisma, youth, and beauty, in their last fateful encounter she finally bares her true self to her cousin. In doing so, she reclaims the agency and assurance that she almost lost and proves once again that she is the queen most willing to sacrifice her own personal emotions and desires–particularly her love for her dear Robert Dudley. Unlike Mary, who refuses to acknowledge political reality, Elizabeth always has her pulse on the real world. She knows, and ultimately accepts, that she will have to give up her some essential parts of herself is she hopes to rule as a wise and just queen in a man’s world. And Elizabeth, even more than Mary, recognizes that there is room on their isle for only one of them.
The script, however, has some major weaknesses that the film struggles to overcome. For one thing, it is too short to adequately explore the various plot threads that it puts into play. For someone who is already well-acquainted with the history and politics of the period this isn’t too significant of a handicap, but I can see how someone who doesn’t know much about the depicted events would quickly become lost.
More significantly, the rushed nature of the script means that some of the key players–particularly Darnley and Bothwell–are woefully underdeveloped, their motives and actions left largely unexplained. A number of pivotal points of character development–Darnley’s betrayal, Bothwell’s rape of Mary–seem to come out of left-field. Had the writers either trimmed out these portions or had the director given some more time for the story to flex its muscles, it would have made a stronger drama. As it is, the performances of the two leads are definitely the best part about it.
All in all, I quite enjoyed Mary, Queen of Scots, despite some of its flaws. Is it as strong a film as some of the other fictional tellings of the doomed Scottish queen? Probably not. However, it does reveal the extent to which this tragic tale continues to hold on the imagination, and how extraordinary these women were in their efforts to rule in a man’s world. What’s more, it does at least attempt to convey the complicated politics of the era (hardly surprising, given that it is based on John Guy’s very popular and applauded biography of Mary) . For both of those reasons, it deserves a great deal of credit, and I look forward to seeing it again.