As discontent with Europe grows, the woman who rules over England sees her already waning authority threatened by her ferocious fellow ruler north of the border, who questions her claim to power.
Alas, this is not a tale of the Scottish Government’s discontent with Brexit. This is Mary Queen of Scots, the story of the eponymous Scottish monarch Mary (Saoirse Ronan) and how political turmoil forces her into the protection of her cousin, Elizabeth I of England (Margot Robbie), who many see as being under threat by Mary’s very existence. Director Josie Rourke is not content with a mere retelling of known historical facts, creatively reconstructing parts of the past in unexpected ways. This reimagination will win you over with its intimacy and inclusiveness as much as it will irk you with its oddities and omissions.
The two queens are front and centre for the film, and mostly carry it with authority and emotion. Ronan gives a fierce, passionate performance, but her portrayal of Mary can feel occasionally forced, not helped by a misplaced Scottish accent. It is Robbie who sinks more convincingly into her role as Elizabeth, a queen who sacrifices her femininity in the name of the throne. Robbie captures a powerful fragility about one of the most famous English monarchs. It’s a shame that she does not get more screen time than she does.
Rourke invites you to look at the more personal aspects of Mary’s life — a lot of the important plot points occur in her bedchambers. Mary’s relationship with her maids is especially touching, with light-hearted discussions of sex and relationships making for a calm before the storm. There is a sharp contrast made obvious between the two queens. Mary embraces her sexuality and the prospect of raising a child, while Elizabeth remains chaste, unmarried and often alone. The pair adopt different strategies to asserting their authority over the various men in their lives, but for both this authority is deeply connected to their sense of womanhood. It is a portrayal of power that feels as necessary as it is refreshing.
The storytelling, however, is flawed. Several large jumps in time cannot be immediately noticed as the film aches under the weight of its own history, despite some obvious glossing over. Some of the cast are left working with scraps as their characters rarely emerge from behind the scenes. The eventual meeting between the two queens is bizarrely choreographed and is followed almost immediately by the conclusion, thus leaving no time to dwell on Mary’s time in England. The film struggles to balance a detailed look at Mary’s life with the necessary context within which it was being lived, as the two-hour running time proves meagre.
Mary’s beheading in real life was a messy affair, with the first blow of the axe missing her neck and striking the back of her skull. Mary Queen of Scots boasts strong performances (from Robbie in particular) but similarly to her death, the execution could have been better.
Image: Focus Features