Whilst I have a little bit of understanding of the Tudors and Elizabethan society, I can’t say that my knowledge is all there, so films about this time period are a good way to engage my interest. So when it was announced that there was going to be a film about Mary, Queen of Scots with Saoirse Ronan as Mary, I was excited, with the rest of the cast assembled and the trailers building my excitement. However, the actual film feels like it needed to be about half an hour longer in order to be a truly great film.
The film takes place after Mary Stuart comes back from France to take the throne of Scotland, at a time when tensions between England and Scotland are high, not helped by the fact that Mary is Catholic and the ruler of England, Queen Elizabeth 1st, is protestant, with the film focusing on the growing diplomatic issues between Scotland and England and the ways the English court works to undermine the rule of Mary, to get sympathisers on the throne instead. Now the thematic weight of the film is focused around the feminist angle of the film, focusing on how Mary and Elizabeth are manipulated by the men around them and it’s the damage caused by masculinity that led to the collapse of any peace talks between Scotland and England and gives the idea that, if left to Mary and Elizabeth alone, the tensions between Scotland and England would have been resolved peacefully. There are also interesting ideas brought up relating to sexuality and how religion is used to drive fervour against people, but these themes actually lead to the big problem I have with the film. Whilst the main thematic hook is strong, it comes at the expense of the narrative. Most of the plot threads in the film just needed a bit more time in order to be fully developed and give a richer narrative. For example, a tragic moment for Elizabeth is when she has to send Robert Dudley away in order to get Mary to marry him, but we don’t spend enough time with Elizabeth and Dudley together to get a sense of the tragedy of the scene. It also means that scenes of character development and scenes that could have been used to show the damage politics and masculinity can cause don’t really exist for some characters. This is most notable with Henry Darnley, where you get a beginning and end to his character arc, but there’s no connective tissue between those points, which could have been a great show for the danger of toxic masculinity. I also felt that the script didn’t trust the audience with the visual symbolism, with characters just flat out explaining the themes of the film, mainly at the end of the film in the culmination of the character arcs for Mary and Elizabeth.
The performances are a bit of a mixed bag though. The lead performances from Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie are excellent. Ronan does a great job at showing the struggles that she faces in the environment of Scottish politics at the time, showing a strong political mind, but one which is struggling to compete with everything around her. Her desire for a peaceful resolution for the political dispute and to create a strong union between England and Scotland is there, along with an attitude of disdain for those who undermine her, with a sense of righteous anger that flows through her performance. Robbie meanwhile shows the tragic side of Elizabeth well, along with how much damage has been done to her by the pressures of the crown and how it has forced her to adopt all of her worst tendencies in order to play the political game. The scene with Ronan and Robbie on screen together at the end, whilst it has attracted the ire of historians since Mary and Elizabeth never met, is a showcase of two powerhouse performers at the top of their game. The rest of the performances though are fairly one note. Jack Lowden as Henry Darnely, Martin Compston as the Earl of Bothwell and Joe Alwyn as Robert Dudley get the most development, but, as I said earlier, it feels like important scenes for their characters were cut out so they act like completely different characters in the second half of the film. Performers like Gemma Chan and Simon Russell Beale are completely wasted, whilst David Tennant, Guy Pearce and Brendan Coyle are pretty bland, focusing on exaggeration for theme rather than making them compelling characters on a narrative level.
The technical side of the film is strong though. Director Josie Rourke and DP John Mathieson do a good job at building the atmosphere in the film, showing a good sense of character through the way sets and characters are framed. Their work also shines in the battle scene about halfway through the scene. Granted, I did find it a bit confusing in terms of which side was which, but the way the battle was shot was engaging and tense. The costume design and make-up work is strong as well, particularly for Elizabeth, with the work done at the end of the film doing a great job at making Robbie look like the portraits of Elizabeth we’ve seen.
Overall, Mary, Queen of Scots is a bit of a frustrating movie because it’s almost there. It has the right performances and right thematic weight, but it needed just a little bit more character development to push it over the edge from being a pretty good movie to being an excellent movie.
My Rating: 3.5/5