Mary Stuart was only six days old when she became Queen of Scotland. Most of her childhood and her formative years were spent in France. Scotland was ruled by regents, those appointed to govern by the state in the absence of its queen.
During her teenage years, while living overseas, Mary married King Francis II of France and became the country’s queen consort. But Francis died, and nineteen years after she had left Scotland, Mary returned to her homeland and reclaimed her throne. It’s at this point when Mary Stuart, the only surviving legitimate child of the late King James V, sets foot back on British soil where the new adult historical drama from director Josie Rourke, Mary Queen of Scots, begins.
For the following two hours, the film chronicles the rivalry between Mary, Queen of Scotland (Saoirse Ronan) and her sister, Elizabeth I, Queen of England (Margot Robbie). Elizabeth’s Protestant power was immense, extending its reach into Scotland, but Catholic Mary intended to be more than just a figurehead. In their own ways, both feared each other, but for different reasons.
Both were aware that Mary’s claim to the English throne was legitimate, something that England’s queen would never allow. But while Mary persistently declared her right to dismantle Elizabeth’s dominion, she not only had to deal with conflicts from her southern neighbors but also from within her own country. “We have a scourge upon our land,” declares John Knox (David Tennant), the fiery anti-Catholic Scottish minister. “It is a woman with a crown!”
Shot with exceptionally well-framed images by cinematographer John Mathieson – the larger the screen, the better to appreciate the composition – the events of Britain’s 16th-century history as portrayed can’t help but be ceaselessly fascinating. And while a single film can only show the sprawling story as a series of highlights, each scene is so crammed with conflict, there’s never a moment where the drama sags or interest wanes. The only casualty of such a fast-moving telling is the subject of time.
From 1561 when the film begins to 1587 where the story ends, twenty-six years have passed, yet the film rarely conveys a sense time. Mary never appears to age, a point that is actually raised by Elizabeth herself in a private meeting with her sister, one that historians believe never occurred. It’s more on the face of Queen Elizabeth where those twenty-six years can be viewed. First seen as a youthful woman, Elizabeth’s face is later covered in pox, then healed but left with the scars of disease, then seen later where, at the time of Mary’s execution, the monarch’s face was caked in the ghostly white makeup, an image made familiar through historical paintings.
Both Ronan and Robbie are superb, each thoroughly convincing as the rival sisters intent on out-maneuvering the other. Ronan’s unique ability with accents is remarkable, whether it’s American, as in Lady Bird and The Lovely Bones, English in Atonement, her native Ireland as in Brooklyn, and here as a Scot in Mary Queen of Scots. Interestingly, her brogue is not as thick as those around her, and on reflection, it wouldn’t be. Having spent all of her youth and most of her teenage years growing up in France, it’s more than likely that Mary’s English language would have sounded French rather than Scots. By playing the character with an initially milder north of the border accent than most of her fellow countrymen adds a further nod to Ronan and the film’s authenticity. It’s only later, after having spent a considerable amount of time back in her homeland where her regional Scots becomes more apparent.
Australian actor Robbie has also proven how adept she can be with accents, as proven with her American in, among others, I, Tonya and The Wolf of Wall Street, her variations of English in The Legend of Tarzan and About Time, her upper-crust received pronunciation as the socialite mother in Goodbye Christopher Robin, and here as a pitch-perfect Queen Elizabeth l.
Had the full story of Mary Queen of Scots been told it would have taken several hours, not unlike the lengthy Netflix series The Crown. Each hour-long episode would have had the time to explore in detail the individual stories and their outcomes, all involving court intrigue, battles, threats of civil war, betrayal, and murder. And even though Mary’s final eighteen and a half years of imprisonment, confined under Elizabeth’s orders, is skipped over completely (a period that alone would make an interesting film) screenwriter Beau Willimon and director Rourke have done well streamlining the rivalry down to the studio’s desired two hours. Despite the time skipping, individual events rarely feel overly rushed.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 112 Minutes