Directed by: Josie Rourke
Runtime: 125 minutes
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a historical adaptation in possession of bankable icons must be in want of more dramatic heft. I have never been one to overly criticise a historical film over slight inaccuracies—for example, I completely understand why Hollywood likes giving European historical figures bland British accents, and why they may take particular liberties with true events in order to make things more interesting. Historical fiction is just that—fiction—and I understand the need for dramatic weight to take precedence over truth.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, I have loved Tudor and Elizabethan history since I was very young, and have found most representations of the monarch wanting. With Cate Blanchett’s 1998 biopic Elizabeth as the only exception, most adaptations seem unable to capture the intricacies of a female monarch living in that time. Mary Queen of Scots seems to want to distance itself from that mentality; the people involved in the film enjoyed telling the press that this was a more nuanced examination of two powerful females in a war for power. Unfortunately, this does not come across on screen.
The film follows Mary (Saoirse Ronan), a monarch returning to Scotland after spending her formative years in France, married to a man who eventually succumbed to a deadly illness. With her eyes on ruling not only her own throne but the throne of England, she begins a discourse with her cousin, Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie). Where I was expecting a political battle of wits to ensue, I was left being forced to watch Elizabeth crying and Mary refusing the advice of the people around her for a couple of hours.
On the positive side of things, both performers really do try their best with the subject matter, providing fantastic performances that I would have loved to see in a different film. Ronan gives Mary a fierce exterior while hinting at her inward longings, whereas Robbie does give Elizabeth a regal presence when necessary, and a vulnerability that would have been less annoying with a better script. The film does start out quite strong—setting up exactly what I believed was promised by the marketing materials. Both women are clever in their discourse, making political moves that seem to match their counterpart. Unfortunately, after the first third, the film takes a turn for the worse.
Elizabeth, known as The Virgin Queen, seems to have one particular theme running throughout her cinematic representations: “Yeah, but who was she really bonking? Didn’t she really want a child?” The film decides to place Robert Dudley, a man who historically was rumoured to be a ‘special friend’ of the Queen, as her consort. Her loving relationship with Dudley is quite sweet; however, it is marred by her obsession with her decision not to procreate. We are treated to such gems as ‘Queen Elizabeth pets a newborn foal’, ‘Queen Elizabeth makes her shadow look like she’s carrying a child’, and ‘Queen Elizabeth creates a poppy picture out of paper’. In making the character more vulnerable, the writers seem to forget that historically, the woman was an absolute badass—opting to instead make her tear up constantly and bemoan how “Men are so cruel” when talking to her Scottish relative.
Mary, on the other hand, gets some serious reworkings in the likeability department. Her second husband, in this iteration, apparently enjoys gentlemen’s company more than he does his wife’s, and she has no hand whatsoever in the plot against his life. Moreover, she rides into battle with her troops in the Scottish civil war, disagrees with any man around her, and is eventually betrayed by them. By the end of the film, we are not feeling like Elizabeth’s victory was won, but instead that both of them were screwed over by the patriarchy. To me, taking agency away from female characters is the polar opposite to the film’s intent, and I found myself rolling my eyes at many moments throughout the film.
All in all, this is a film with some good intentions that failed to deliver. While the story of both of these monarchs has never failed to intrigue the masses, Mary Queen of Scots strips the titular characters of their nuances, much to the detriment of the film. While I do feel sorrow for both performers, who obviously did bring all they could to their roles, I can’t recommend this film over other Elizabethan biopics. Heck, Lizzie had more grit in Shakespeare in Love than she does in this film. Really, if you want complex portrayals of female politics, then go watch The Favourite instead.