Historians tend to hold a romanticised view of the Elizabethan period, seeing it as a time when women ruled with stoicism and grace. It’s hard to believe that so many were comfortable with a Queen as their leader, given the patriarchal values of the time, which is why this biopic is an interesting, and welcome, release.
Queen Mary of France (Saoirse Ronan) has returned to her birthplace of Scotland, hoping to seek refuge from the warfare in her adopted home. After promptly, civilly usurping the throne from her half-brother James, the Earl of Moray (James McArdle), Mary’s first act as leader is to send written correspondence to her half-sister, and newly-crowned Queen of England, Elizabeth (Margot Robbie) in hope of establishing peace between the two nations.
Initially, Mary is welcomed by her fellow countrymen, but her spirited character and demands for unquestioned loyalty soon sees that appreciation give way to criticism. Chief among her critics is John Knox (David Tennant), the leader of the Protestant Church of Scotland, who uses his sermons to criticise his Queen, her Catholic faith and everything else that she is alleged to stand for
Meanwhile, further south, there is growing discontent in Elizabeth’s court. One of Mary’s conditions for peace is that she supersede her half-sister as Queen of England, an act that would displease the largely-Protestant population; as of such, her advisors – namely Lord Randolph (Adrian Lester) and William Cecil (Guy Pearce) – are doing everything in their power to ensure that does not happen, which includes questioning her decision-making.
Mary, Queen of Scots is directed by Josie Rourke, who is helming her first ever feature-length film. Rourke has a long, rich background in stage productions, a history that is imbued throughout her debut movie, most evidently in the costumes, make-up and production design. The same style is also apparent in the cast – like most British theatrical groups, there’s little care for who plays the “white” roles, with Gemma Chan and the aforementioned Lester being just two examples.
Both Lester and Chan perform admirably in their parts, as do the leads, for that matter. Much like the woman she portrays, Saoirse Ronan is a commanding presence, but can be an approachable and understanding figure should the need arise. For instance, when it is revealed that one of Mary’s male confidants, David Rizzio (Ismael Cruz Cordova) is homosexual, rather than abhor or admonish him, Mary treats this revelation kindly, even embracing it.
A similar characterisation is afforded to the Queen of England, with Margot Robbie eschewing Elizabeth’s reputation as a ruthless ruler to portray a woman who is hesitant, cautious, compassionate and somewhat doting – rarely does she take authoritative action against her Scottish counterpart, leaving those duties to her council. Additionally, Elizabeth is shown to idolise Mary, and even expresses concern when it appears as though her rule is in turmoil.
Further deviating from history is Queen of Scots’ depiction of the role men played in the lives of Mary and Elizabeth. With regard to the former, she sees her rule defied and undermined almost from the beginning, first by John Knox and later by her own brother; the latter leader is treated more fairly by her male subjects, but only because they are the ones who make the decisions, manipulating their Queen into submission. Both interpretations are rather fascinating, even if their factual accuracy is to be disputed.
In many respects, Mary, Queen of Scots is like the works of playwright William Shakespeare, rich in complex characters and machinations. This impression extends to the tragic tone of the script which consequently, and unfortunately, lends to a depressing, unempowering mood. Additionally, because the material is taken so seriously, and the pacing slow, the film can be something of a chore to watch – it might benefit from the fun and playfulness that makes The Favourite, another royal biopic, so delightful.
Mary, Queen of Scots is a fascinating re-interpretation of history, and an enlightening portrait of the male-dominated Elizabethan era. With its theatrical aesthetic, diverse cast and multifaceted characters, Josie Rourke’s film is beguiling, but isn’t quite the cathartic experience that it deserves to be.