Mary Stuart was the first reigning Queen of Scotland during the mid 1500s and her story has been told countless times in film. The very title “Mary Queen of Scots” has been adopted several times, while other films such as Elizabeth have also recounted her legacy.
For those unfamiliar with the story, she was the cousin of Queen Elizabeth I, who ruled England and saw Mary as a threat to her throne. Despite being a proponent of peace between the kingdoms, Mary challenged Elizabeth’s throne and faced civil unrest from the Catholic Church. To put it more simply, Mary Queen of Scots is the one who had her head chopped off, having been tried for plotting to kill Liz.
Historically, the relationship between Scotland and England is complex and compelling, and Mary’s part in it is iconic. And so it is disappointing that the latest retelling of her story plays out more like a medieval soap opera. And while I cannot categorically define it as a bad film, I can say that it is a rather pointless one.
Saoirse Ronan stars as Mary, and she gives a well-measured performance. With a script that makes little effort to examine this period, her investment in the character certainly elevates the story beyond its lacklustre narrative. I had recently grown weary of Ronan following her two laborious films On Chesil Beach and The Seagull, but fortunately in Mary she recaptures her youthful appeal of Brooklyn and Ladybird by delivering an impassioned and sincere turn. Australian actress Margot Robbie continues her Hollywood reign with another Oscar-soliciting performance that has her made-down and almost unrecognisable as Elizabeth. Unfortunately, while I like Robbie a lot, I found her attempt to nail the period to be misguided and doused with insincerity.
The supporting cast includes Jack Lowden (Dunkirk), Joe Alwyn (The Favourite) and David Tennant (Broadchurch), who are all adequate but never great. Tennant’s performance often teeters towards parody and has him preaching religious sermons like a lunatic from a Monty Python film. Other side players include the legendary Ian Hart (In God’s Country) and Guy Pearce (The Proposition) whose presence and dramatic weight help Ronan maintain some credibility for the film… although I must confess that seeing Robbie alongside Pearce did have me thinking about Ramsey Street and a Neighbours reunion.
Mary Stuart’s real-life story includes so many incredible details, such as imprisonment and escape, abduction and rape, and all manner of collusions against England with other nations. And yet Mary Queen of Scots ignores the genuinely interesting details in favour of scandal and melodrama, as well as an annoying thinly veiled contemporary social commentary. Themes of homosexuality are introduced, which is fine, however the character in question was never documented as being gay and was, in reality, murdered out of jealousy by Mary’s husband when he suspected an affair between the two (not how the movie will have you know). And so this retelling of history makes tacky lines like “you are as nature intended you to be” by Mary feel as though they are driven by agenda. Furthermore, with this homosexual adage initiating a fundamental turning point in the narrative, it becomes clear that the film is riddled with creative licence and not much of an historical account. Oh, and did I mention that this same character’s entire ethnicity was also changed – despite historical documents. Ordinarily it wouldn’t matter, but when added to the ever-growing pile of liberties, yikes!
There is simply too much nonsense going on in Mary Queen of Scots. It is a bastardised Hollywood history lesson and a laborious one at that. It is drawn-out and long-winded, often boring and only occasionally entertaining. A few strong performances as well as stunning production and costume designs save it from total disaster. It is the calibre of entertainment you might find in television melodramas like Reign or Victoria, but history buffs need not bother.
SCREEN REALM SCORE: ★★☆☆☆
‘Mary Queen of Scots’ opened in US cinemas on December 21 and is currently screening in Australian cinemas.