The story of Mary Queen of Scots and Queen Elizabeth I is one that has practically every element to guarantee a stand-out movie, yet somehow director Josie Rourke’s film manages to subdue the effects. It’s a visually pleasing film, with some great cinematography that does the expansive environment justice on the big screen, but some curious narrative choices makes Mary Queen of Scots a quite pedestrian affair. Given the source material that’s quite a big misstep, and one that sadly doesn’t help its impressive ensemble out.
Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie), the Queen of England, finds herself in a quandary when Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan) returns to these lands after living in France. She has a rightful claim to the throne, something Elizabeth’s advisors are well aware of. With her lead counsel William Cecil (Guy Pearce) urging her to take drastic action to ensure her position of power goes unchallenged, Elizabeth and Mary’s relationship deteriorates as Mary returns to Scotland and begins to navigate her own challenges – be it treachery, devious plots against her or the pressure of finding a suitor to appease the growing tension and unrest among the elites.
The film is blessed to have two of Hollywood’s biggest stars leading the line, and their performances elevate this film to a new level. Margot Robbie features quite a bit at the start of the film and her character’s journey has many interesting devices that aren’t explored enough as the film progresses. After a strong start, Robbie is relegated to the sidelines and that was a massive shame. She was quite brilliant in the role, with Elizabeth’s insecurities and desire to rule sized up expertly by Robbie’s faultless performance.
Saoirse Ronan has long been the best actress of her generation, and she once again steals the film with a nuanced and painfully emotive performance. Ronan does very well in carrying the film after Robbie’s character doesn’t feature as much. Yes, this film is called Mary Queen of Scots and she does play the lead, but this story hinges on both women’s struggle, and I feel Ronan had more of a difficult task after the screenplay writes out Robbie for large chunks of the plot. It’s a very demanding role but Ronan handles everything thrown at her with assured grace and a maturity far beyond her years. Both Ronan and Robbie are superb and transcend the script at hand.
The supporting cast are all fine, with David Tennant quite impressive as John Knox, Adrian Lester provides a safe pair of hands whenever an authoritative figure is needed and his exchanges with Robbie are well executed. Martin Compston, Joe Alwyn, James McArdle, Jack Lowden and Ismael Cruz Córdova also hand in noteworthy support, but Guy Pearce as William Cecil (advisor to Queen Elizabeth) is nothing short of unintentionally funny (mainly because he has decided to voice him like Sir David Attenborough). It’s just a bizarre choice, and one that distracts more than it enhances. The brilliant Gemma Chan is also wasted in a small role.
There are historical inaccuracies peppered throughout the film, and whilst some licence has to be granted for this to work as a dramatic movie, it still leaves you questioning whether some major developments took place. The role of women in that era was a precarious and altogether grim one, with men seeking to assert their will and dominance upon them at every opportunity. There are parts of the film that show this, and that’s where Mary Queen of Scots works well as a narrative – a story about two strong-willed women who are cursed to exist and navigate a male-dominated world that offers a very real threat to them (in-spite of their respective authority).
Mary, Queen of Scots could have been an epic retelling of the remarkable events that took place. Instead it relies too heavily on plot points that don’t need dwelling on, and negates to expand on some big storylines and events. It’s worth a watch purely for the stellar leading turns from Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie, but sadly I can’t shake the feeling that their performances deserved a far better film.
Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Margot Robbie, David Tennant, Guy Pearce, Adrian Lester, Martin Compston, Joe Alwyn, James McArdle, Jack Lowden, Ismael Cruz Córdova, Gemma Chan Director: Josie Rourke Writer: Beau Willimon Certificate: 15 Duration: 124 mins Released by: Universal Release date: 18th January 2019