Film Review: Mary Queen of Scots (UK, 2018) is a revisionist feminist tale fraught with issues

In an awards season dominated by powerful female performances, the chance to see two fierce Queens go head-to-head sounds like a tantalising opportunity. In director Josie Rourke‘s debut film Mary Queen of Scots, the epic showdown promised within the film’s somewhat misleading advertising never quite materialises. In its place is a revisionist feminist tale fraught with pacing issues that takes a tad too many liberties with history for the sake of spicing up its narrative, leaving us with a decidedly uneven piece of cinema.

Saved by the performances of its dynamic leading lady combination of Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie and typically dazzling period production and costume design, Mary Queen of Scots never quite reaches the heights it potentially could have, particularly by virtue of unfortunate timing. After Yorgos Lanthimos flipped the period genre on its head with the deliciously naughty The Favourite, the inescapable comparison between the two makes Mary Queen of Scots look rather dull, even with its efforts to provide a progressive spin on its royal setting.

Beginning in 1561, 18-year-old Catholic widow Mary of Scotland (Ronan) returns to her native homeland, having spent the last 13 years living in France as the wife and Queen to the now deceased King Francis II. After living for years in naive obliviousness, Mary finds Scotland in the midst of deep conflict with England and the country ravaged by civil discourse between the sparring Catholic and Protestant factions. Mary’s reclamation of the throne is met with immediate resistance and disdain from Protestant leader John Knox (David Tennant, chewing every piece of scenery in sight) and her scheming half-brother, James (James McArdle), who has been serving as interim ruler in her absence.

Meanwhile, over in England, Protestant Queen Elizabeth (Robbie) sees her cousin’s arrival in Scotland as a potential threat to her own throne. Without an heir, she sits entirely exposed if Mary were to stake a claim for ruling over both England and Scotland. To Elizabeth’s surprise, Mary initially sees no cause for such upheaval, instead suggesting the two Queens co-exist as separate rulers under a united two kingdom agreement. As the two monarchs bond via letters, where they share a commonality of the perils facing female rulers in a male-dominated world, a sister-like connection grows, providing hope the two assumed enemies can defy the odds and find compromises to avoid an all-out war. Naturally, that doesn’t sit well with the scrupulous men surrounding both Queens.

Knox spreads vicious lies about Mary to anyone who will listen. Elizabeth’s chief advisor William Cecil (Guy Pearce) twists Mary’s innocuous actions as signs of her intention for war. The ultra-conservative Scottish Catholics becry Mary’s resistance to religious extremism and her decision to keep openly gay and gender-fluid Rizzio (Ismael Cruz Cordova) by her side within the court. Suspicious of her cousin’s behaviour, Elizabeth offers her own lover, Robert Dudley (Joe Alwyn) to Mary as a potential husband, hoping he can act as a spy for his beloved Queen. But Mary rejects Elizabeth’s proposal, seeing right through her cousin’s sneaky plan, and instead chooses her first cousin, Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden) as her suitor. But the power-hungry Darnley ultimately has eyes for Rizzio, and their scandalous affair will prove problematic for all involved. Despite their best intentions to keep relations civil, the once-blossoming sisterhood between Mary and Elizabeth is soon fractured by the selfish will of men, and blood will soon be spilt on both sides.

If it’s not immediately obvious from this brief plot summary, there’s a concerted effort from screenwriter Beau Willimon (of House of Cards fame) to spice up this narrative with a whole swag of risque sexual exploits, feminist ideals, and wildly outrageous twists on history in the name of artistic license. In the era of #TimesUp, Willimon has revised this well-worn tale of warring Queens into something that attempts relevance by portraying the women as the victims in a conflict not of their own making. Whether this feels either wonderfully refreshing or infuriatingly inauthentic will be an entirely personal reaction, but it certainly presents an interesting take on two Queens long considered to be irrational and vengeful shrews. At a time when the behaviour of selfish and greedy men is finally being questioned, it’s not a far stretch to imagine the men of this era ultimately corrupted the relationship of two powerful women for their own benefit.

However, Rourke’s impassioned and admirable efforts to make her debut film something inspiringly feminist can feel slightly disingenuous to the factuality of her narrative. Revisionist history is one thing but creating something from absolutely nothing robs the film of any sense of true authenticity. It’s endearing to see a monarch of the 16th century so surprisingly progressive in her view of issues regarding sexuality, religion, and social standards, but there’s an inescapable sense this is pure fantasy, crafted to turn Mary into a liberal, feminist icon for modern audiences to lap up.

Likewise with Elizabeth, who the film spins into someone steadfastly resolute in her belief she doesn’t need a King by her side or an heir to carry on her legacy. In reality, Elizabeth was painfully desperate for both. The end result feels rather muddled. Rourke clearly intends to further elevate these female icons of history, but goes to unrealistic attempts to achieve her goal. There’s nothing wrong with twisting history for some good melodrama. But if you must take this route, go further and present your piece as a modern interpretation, rather than an authentic period piece. Neither Rourke nor Willimon can seem to decide what Mary Queen of Scots truly is.

Perhaps this comes from Rourke’s background in theatre, where historical fantasies are far more common and palatable. Her sensibilities for theatrics are constantly on show here, which, for better or worse, instils the film with an unrelenting sense of melodrama. One particularly brutal and bloody sequence feels like something straight out of Shakespeare where you half expect a Greek chorus to burst into the castle. But her flair for theatricality is truly on show in the film’s final act where the two Queens finally meet in a secluded cabin decorated with sheets and drapes through which the two rivals converse for the very first time.

While entirely fictional (sorry to say, but the two women never actually met), the sequence is worth the price of admission alone, showcasing the impressive talents of both Ronan and Robbie in a scene that’s rather heartbreaking. The pair acknowledges they’ve let the men in their lives destroy the powerful connection they once shared, but neither has the ability to change their now tragic trajectories. It takes an exhaustively long time to arrive at this powerful moment, but, thankfully, it’s ultimately worth the effort. The exquisite costumes from Oscar-nominee Alexandra Byrne and the impressive production design from James Merifield don’t exactly hurt the eyes either.

In the titular role (take that, Lady Bird), Ronan is typically effective, albeit not quite as spectacular as she has been in other recent roles. The burden of carrying the film is entirely on her shoulders, and she gives it her all in a fiery performance that captures the spirit of one of history’s most fascinating characters. But she’s outdone by Robbie who tackles the deeply complex and difficult Elizabeth with impressive determination to deliver a captivating performance that’s damaged by a disappointing lack of sufficient screen time. When she is given the spotlight, Robbie is a dizzying mix of fierce toughness and crippling vulnerability where she finds the pathos and humanity in a historical figure so often misjudged. When combined in their one sequence together, Ronan and Robbie create cinematic magic, leaving us begging for another collaboration in the future.

With a spirited effort from Rourke to showcase these two famous female icons of history as wildly powerful yet crushingly imperfect beings, Mary Queen of Scots attempts to craft a more rounded portrayal of two of the most infamous women in history. But its admirable intentions are undone by twisting its narrative too far, leaving us with a film that feels rather insincere and disjointed. With a first act that drags along at a snail’s pace, the film becomes somewhat of an effort to endure. But stick it out to see the closing chapter, which more than makes up for the film’s earlier misgivings. Just don’t expect a Dynasty-style catfight or you’ll be sorely disappointed.

THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Mary Queen of Scots is in cinemas now.

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Doug Jamieson

Doug Jamieson is a Disney diehard, a Pop vinyl obsessive collector, and, above all things, a lover of the world of cinema. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter with @itsdougjam.