Mary Queen of Scots, directed by Josie Rourke, is a historical drama film based on John Guy’s biography Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart.
A young Mary Stuart returns to Scotland after the death of her husband, the king of France. In her absence, her half-brother James has been ruling as regent. The circumstances of Mary’s birth actually give her rightful claim over both the English and Scottish thrones.
Mary returns to Scotland with the intent of trying to unify both England and Scotland under one ruler. Differences in religious choices are also driving a wedge between England and Scotland. Mary feels that people should be able to worship as they choose, Catholic or Protestant. This choice outrages the religious leader who then takes it upon himself to demonize Mary against the people. James also does not approve of Mary’s choice and this starts a fracture in their relationship.
Mary Queen of Scots stars Saorise Ronan, Margot Robbie, Joe Alwyn, Jack Louden, and David Tennant.
Queen Elizabeth (Margot Robbie) quickly recognizes the precarious hold that she has on the English throne after her cousin’s return. Elizabeth, who knows that she is not going to marry or produce an heir, works out a plan to maintain power.
She reaches out to Mary under the guise of unification and introduces the idea of Mary marrying an English nobleman. Elizabeth is so driven for control that she offers up her love, Robert Dudley (Joe Alwyn) for marriage to Mary. In Elizabeth’s mind, the marriage would provide the ultimate control over Mary. Mary wholeheartedly accepts the idea but only if Elizabeth names Mary her successor. Elizabeth refuses to do so and that sparks a line of contention between the two queens.
Mary eventually does marry an Englishman as Elizabeth suggests. For all her strong aspects, Mary is ultimately a young woman who leads with her heart. Mary quickly falls for Lord Darnley’s (Jack Louden) charms and accepts his marriage proposal. Lord Darnley has the ulterior motive to become King and the people conspiring against Mary use this against both him and her.
Mary has little time to consider the repercussions her choice of marriage poses because her brother James is leading an uprising against her. Though Mary does not know this at the time, Elizabeth has funded the uprising in a bid to maintain power. Quickly Mary works to quash the revolt and handle her new husband.
Ultimately, Lord Darnley starts in motion the events that cause Mary to abdicate the throne. Mary eventually realizes that she has been outmaneuvered politically by men in both her and Elizabeth’s courts. Seeking protection from exile, Mary reaches out to Elizabeth for help. Elizabeth offers Mary protection only in the form of house arrest.
What I Liked
The angle of this story is different from what viewers are used to. Director Josie Rourke does a great job of painting a picture about two strong women who are at odds but also have a kinship in the fact that they are women monarchs in a man’s world. She also gives more depth to the history by moving characters that may have been seen as minor players into view.
Seeing Mary’s ultimate undoing by Lord Darnley is hard to watch since the only thing she really wants is to be loved. Louden plays Lord Darnley very well. His charm is evident from the very beginning, as are his many insecurities.
Both Robbie and Ronan give striking performances. Robbie goes through dramatic physical changes showing smallpox and all the damage that it does. Amazingly, she comes across as both sincere and cold in her quest to remain queen. It’s clear that she loves Robert and wants to be with him. However, she is more paranoid and calculating than many people give her credit for. In the end, she sacrifices all of her relationships for the crown.
Ronan portrays the young Mary as ambitious, smart, and fierce. There is a great depth of emotion that Ronan expresses with her character. As a viewer there is a great deal of empathy for her. Watching her be slowly ousted is painful.
What Could Have Been Better
While a majority of the story takes place over a short period of time, there is little done to show character aging. When Mary’s execution finally takes place some 20 years after the beginning of the story, she doesn’t look a day over 18. The only aging of Elizabeth comes with smallpox scars and looking heavier at the end of the film (though that may have just been the dress).
Additionally, I wish that there had been a bit more background provided regarding the relationship between Mary and Elizabeth. While familial relationships are sometimes hard to follow, in monarchies it can be even harder. For anyone who isn’t a history buff, Mary’s rightful claim to England’s throne is a bit confusing.
This movie was fun, interesting and sometimes painful to watch, particularly with Mary’s downfall. I found myself rooting for her even though I knew the outcome. This is a well-made movie worth watching but would’ve done better as a series on Netflix or Hulu. The depth of history knowledge required to really understand all the details might have been better explained on a per episode basis.
Overall Score: 4/5