Recently widowed Mary returns from France to Scotland and assumes the throne as Queen of Scotland, a Catholic who also has a claim to the throne of England. On the south side of the border, unmarried cousin Elizabeth is the heirless Queen of England whose court is troubled by Mary’s power.
In Mary Queen of Scots, over two hours we watch Elizabeth’s health fail, potential husbands being presented to Mary, as well as diplomatic and military action being taken to resolve the impasse.
Director Josie Rourke and screenwriter Beau Willimon provide a feminist take on the historic events – based largely on John Guy’s biography My Heart is My Own: The Life of Mary Queen of Scots – and allow cinema audiences to eavesdrop on court conversations that convince one queen to pimp out her boyfriend to be her rival’s husband while at the same time she is chided on her lack of a husband to try to produce an heir.
In summary, mostly we see men meddle in women’s affairs, forcing the hand of the two monarchs who otherwise showed signs of tolerance (particularly Mary) and understanding.
The talented Saoirse Ronan was only 23 at the time of filming, yet was the same age as Mary Queen of Scots for much of the film. Ronan’s piercing eyes and flaring nostrils are only part of her varied toolkit to create a strong presence on-screen. Mary has less power than her English cousin and Ronan adopts a cheeky ‘can do’ attitude, the kind of monarch who can get her dress dirty while walking outside.
Ronan also deals well with the seriousness of her catastrophic marriage to vain and arrogant Lord Darnley (played to a T by Jack Lowden) who makes a (probably) fictional pass at Mary’s court musician, Italian David Rizzio (Ismael Cruz Córdova) whom (spoiler alert) he later helps murder (back to non-fiction I’m afraid).
Margot Robbie’s Queen Elizabeth gets less time on screen, but demonstrates the burden of ill health and the pressure of testosterone-fuelled advice from the men who barely stomach her presence on the English throne. Detective Sergeant Steve Arnott (actor Martin Compston) from Line of Duty shows up as an underhand and nasty member of Mary’s court, while a long haired and hirsute David Tennant plays John Knox, a firebrand cleric who we see stirring up Scottish sectarian feeling. Colour-blind casting pulls together a talented cast that includes Gemma Chan and Adrian Lester.
The opening of Mary Queen of Scots in UK cinemas coincides with this year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, so the overtly sectarian rhetoric that demands “she must bow to you, not Rome” cries out loudly from the screen into today’s still-divided society.
Mary Queen of Scots is a tale where women put forth overtures of tolerance that are met with male fear and hatred. It all becomes a bit too Lord of the Rings with armies battling muskets against swords, sibling rivalries and child abduction all thrown at the script to squeeze in more of the history. The film ends up both saucy and violent, and while the embellishments work well cinematically – the fictionalised meeting of the two Queens is quite exotic and an oasis of calm in the long film – some moments in the film do feel bolted on for viewing pleasure and 21st century sensibilities rather than essential storytelling. Leaving all that aside, Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie turn in remarkable performances and there is much to praise in the film.
Mary Queen of Scots is being screened in the Queen’s Film Theatre, Strand Arts Centre, Movie House, Omniplex, Odyssey and Odeon cinemas.