Mary Queen of Scots




Revisiting a history that has often fascinated filmmakers.

Mary Queen of Scots

Saoirse Ronan


The dramatic life of Mary Queen of Scots, cousin to our own Queen Elizabeth I, has long had appeal for filmmakers - her execution was even the subject of a short film made in 1895. The best known earlier cinema features centred on Mary were those starring Katharine Hepburn (1936's Mary of Scotland) and the 1971 piece with the same title as this new one in which Vanessa Redgrave played the title role. The fact that Mary was a Catholic who had a claim to the throne of England if Elizabeth died without an heir meant that, when Mary returned to Scotland as a young widow, the tension between the two countries spilt over. This led to conspiracies and to plotting including those centred on the question of potential bridegrooms for Mary, be it a suitor strategically encouraged by Elizabeth or a figure whose apparent loyalty to Mary hid his own ambitions.


Although the situation resulted in armed conflict, most of the drama in Mary Queen of Scots is intimate and that is so despite the fact that it extends to two murders. Plenty then to fill a movie lasting two hours or more, but arguably too much to cram in since, despite neat intercutting backs and forth between Scotland and England, there is something airless about this new version written by Beau Willimon and directed by theatre director Josie Rourke. In part that is because it all comes across on an even keel as the detailed story plays out and only the meeting between the two queens (fictional of course but appearing here not for the first time) carries the kind of extra frisson that makes for compelling drama. 


The story of Mary Queen of Scots has always been one of a strong individual caught up in a world in which power games turned her into a pawn in ways that were ultimately fatal. Although she is the central figure, Elizabeth too is seen as an individual who, despite being a queen, is under pressure (in this treatment the suggestion is that she had to act like a man in order to survive). Thus, in a tale open to various emphases, this new film is tailored to our times as a portrayal of two women of forceful character who both in their own ways emerge as victims of men since it is males who have the most influence in a world where power is always the key factor.


While the viewpoint expressed is in keeping with our times, Rourke's film is strictly traditional in style, but competent on its own terms. That's so even if the narrative is detailed and complex enough to call out for the extra space that would have been available had it been a series for television. Elizabeth, the second lead character yet always written so as to yield pride of place to Mary whose story is after all the chief focus, is well played here by Margot Robbie. However, in an acceptable but unexceptional movie, it is the performance of Saoirse Ronan that brings distinction to the film, a portrait of Mary by turn regal and sensitive and one marked by its persuasive care over individual details.




Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Margot Robbie, Jack Lowden, Joe Alwyn, James McArdle, Ismael Cruz Cordova, Brendan Coyle, Martin Compston, David Tennant, Adrian Lester, Guy Pearce, Gemma Chan, Ian Hart, Simon Russell Beale.


Dir Josie Rourke, Pro Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner and Debra Hayward, Screenplay Beau Willimon, from the book Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart by John Guy, Ph John Mathieson, Pro Des James Merifield, Ed Chris Dickens, Music Max Richter, Costumes Alexandra Byrne.

Focus Features/Perfect World Pictures/Working Title-Universal Pictures.
124 mins. UK. 2018. Rel: 18 January 2019. Cert. 15.