Review: Mary Queen of Scots (2018)

Mary Queen of Scots

Rating

Director

Josie Rourke

Screenplay

Beau Willimon (Book: John Guy)

Length

2h 4m

Starring

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

MPAA Rating

R for some violence/bloody images and sexuality including rape

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Soundtrack

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Review

Mary Queen of Scots has been a popular figure in cinema for more than a century. This latest version of the story stars Saoirse Ronan as the eponymous queen as she returns to Scotland following the death of her French husband to rebuild her claim to the throne of Scotland and England.

Margot Robbie, given far too little to do, takes on the role of her rival, Queen Elizabeth, as the pair strike a tentative peace while the men around them plot, manipulate, and connive to thwart Mary’s claim to the throne of England. Told almost entirely from the perspective of Mary, giving Ronan a chance to shine as the headstrong queen, we’re given an in-depth look at the political and religious climate of the period as Catholic Mary finds enemies within the Protestant church, led by the firebrand John Knox (David Tenant) while her own half-brother, the Earl of Moray (James McArdle), works behind the scenes to undermine her legitimacy.

Ronan has never been one to shy away from strong roles and Mary Stuart is perhaps one of the most fierce. Forced to abide the rules established by the patriarchy, Ronan gives a passionate, headstrong performance. While she chooses to employ the Scottish brogue, that choice speaks more to the film’s semi-anachronistic approach to the storyline than it does a misreading of historical accuracy.

The details of the story are familiar to any who have studied this period of history, though the arrangement of and modern viewpoint attributed to them are quite a bit out of step for the period. Although this isn’t the first film of this story that has made the David Rizzio character gay and given a bisexual bent to Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden), it is the first that has been so evocatively expressive about it. For his part, Lowden is game and the twist to the narrative helps put the entire film in a present day framework that is at once compelling and frustrating in equal measure.

All of the film’s performances are solid. The colorblind casting, while utterly inappropriate for the period, is laudable. It helps play into the idea that Mary Queen of Scots approaches history from a modern viewpoint rather than a historical one. Finding the commonality between individuals of the period and drawing separate conclusions can be troublesome, but when executed well, it can still be entirely fascinating (much like The Greatest Showman did with success in 2017).

This sumptuous period drama strikes at the heart of the familial relationship between Elizabeth and Mary, two of the only people who knew the struggles of being queen in a world run by men. The film is elevated into a sort of feminist bulwark in a modern climate where the re-emergence of toxic masculinity has become a threat to the stability of our culture. Mary Queen of Scots is a momentous piece of filmmaking even if few have given it the opportunity it deserves simply because it refuses to conform to social mores and the cinematic strictures of the past.

Review Written

March 27, 2019

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