Film review: ‘MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS’ by Nick Gardener from ‘Built For Speed’

The Mary Queen of Scots story is given the Game of Thrones treatment with this stern, slightly pompous but generally well-made tale of royal politics, war, treachery and female determination.

Mary Stuart aka Mary Queen of Scots was the daughter of Scottish King James V and cousin of English Queen, Elizabeth 1. At the beginning of the film Mary (Saoirse Ronan), having spent most of her youth in France, returns to Scotland in 1542 and claims the throne. Also, through the tangled web of succession, she feels she is rightful heir to the English throne, at least upon Elizabeth’s (Margot Robbie) death. As Mary is catholic, however, many are not keen for the English Crown to be loyal to the Pope. As political tensions between England and Scotland grow, Mary faces revolt among her lords and conflict with Elizabet.

The film infuses Mary and Elizabeth’s story with such issues as the political relationship between Scotland and England, the often-brutal history of the monarchy and the status of women in that world. Mary’s crown is constantly threatened by a dissention among the all-male, all-bearded power structure of lords whose fury is fuelled by a toxic brew of misogyny and misguided religious fervour.

Rather than historical detail, the emphasis here is on the character of the two queens and their struggles as women in power so some will quibble about various facts, omissions or emphases. Also, while both leads deliver compelling depictions of the two monarchs, the way in which they characterise Mary and Elizabeth won’t please everyone. Saoirse Ronan makes Mary an intriguing mix of flirtatious young woman and steely monarch who giggles with her handmaidens about a potential suitor but fearlessly and believably leads her soldiers into battle. Still, there are a few too many scenes of her staring wistfully into space delivering slightly cliched empowerment speeches.

Margot Robbie, while very good, tends to emphasise Elizabeth’s emotionally vulnerable side as she battles with perceived threats to her crown, anxiety about her fading beauty (which was ravaged by smallpox) and the fact that she hasn’t produced an heir. Elizabeth was by many accounts, a more calculating and politically savvy figure than the one depicted here and as a monarch who reigned for 45 years, probably more capable of dealing with the sneaky, manipulative men in her court – like the notorious Cecil (a suave Guy Pearce) – than is suggested in this film.

Rendered in muted grey tones and shot with digital video, the film looks dour at times although this often suits the subject matter. It’s a relief, though, when director Josie Rourke ventures out into the lush Scottish Highlands and delivers some stunning landscape shots.

As well as its rather flexible approach to facts, this film will prove a little salacious and soapy for hardcore history buffs but as a mix of political intrigue, courtly drama and as a character study (although very limited) of two important and fascinating people, it’s still worthwhile.

Nick’s rating: ***

Genre: Historical drama/ Biopic.

Classification: MA15+.

Director(s): Josie Rourke.

Release date: 17th Jan 2018.

Running time: 124 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast.


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