Culture Film & TV

Film review: Mary Queen of Scots ★★★☆☆

The verdict on a feminist retelling of Scottish history.

By Iana Murray

If you’re aware of Mary Stuart’s story, you probably know that she meets a rather unfortunate fate.

Sentenced to death, the first thwack of the axe missed her neck entirely, and it wasn’t until the third that her head was finally severed.

Mary’s violent death seems ripe for cinematic exploitation in the vein of Game of Thrones, but in fact, her death isn’t featured Mary Queen of Scots at all.

This staunchly feminist retelling of Scottish history is far more merciful and celebratory of its titular monarch, with some creative license to boot.

The relationship between Mary and Queen Elizabeth I has been explored in many incarnations, though this is the first one with the Scottish queen at the forefront.

Where other directors depict the two women as foes in a bitter rivalry, Mary Queen of Scots sees them as kindred spirits, whose sibling-like bond is torn apart by the men who don’t believe in them.

Saoirse Ronan takes up the mantle of Mary – widowed at 18, she comes back to Scotland from France to claim her throne from Elizabeth I.

Though her accent is dodgy to say the least, she’s full of the fiery energy and individuality that is expected from one of the best actresses working today.

It’s a shame then that she’s betrayed by a screenplay (courtesy of House of Cards creator Beau Willimon) that is far more concerned with the ideology-based politics of 16th century Britain, than the women who run the country.

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Margot Robbie as Queen Elizabeth I

Its treatment of sexuality and race is refreshing for how unceremonious it is.

Director Josie Rourke, hailing from a celebrated career in stage directing, brings a theatrical sensibility to the film that is as welcome as it is inventive.

Intricate staging is paired with colour-blind casting – though a point of contention in some circles, it does mark a nice change to see faces like Gemma Chan as members of Elizabeth’s council.

Despite all this, Mary Queen of Scots feels like the run-of-the-mill period drama whose desperation for an Academy Award is unashamedly blatant.

Period dramas don’t have to be staid actor showcases stifled by their corsets – you only need to look at Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite to prove just that.

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Saoirse Ronan as Mary Stuart is full of energy and individuality

For all its back-patting progressiveness, Mary Queen of Scots is contradictory of its own feminist ideals.

What should be a celebration of women who fight in the face of adversity gets bogged down by old-fashioned subplots that involve finding a husband and having babies.

As the title would suggest, Mary should be the sole driver of the story, but instead much of her arc revolves around the courtship between her and Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden).

It’s a choice that seems staggeringly retrograde.

In fact, setting up Mary and Elizabeth as direct foils forces the film to fall into the same traps as its contemporaries.

While Mary triumphs in marriage and child-rearing, Elizabeth is almost villainised as a barren spinster.

Perhaps one day someone will do Mary Queen of Scots justice, but you won’t find it here.

Mary Queen of Scots is in cinemas on January 18

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