Mary Queen of Scots Review: Fascinating dual-character study of two powerful women in a world of men
Rich in history and paced like a period thriller with dark symbolism, the film is a fascinating dramatisation of one of the most crucial political periods of the sixteenth century
Based on John Guy’s biography of the famous Catholic queen, who was forced to abdicate her Scottish throne, and later executed on the orders of her Protestant cousin, Queen Elizabeth, of England, Josie Rourke’s Mary Queen of Scots, is a fascinating dramatisation of one of the most crucial political periods of the sixteenth century. Rich in history and paced like a period thriller with dark symbolism, the film is sure to appeal to those interested in the history of Europe, and more importantly, those invested in the evolution of Scotland and England over the ages.
Playing the opposing monarchs of Mary and Elizabeth, Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie put in performances that will not soon be forgotten, rendering Mary Queen of Scots with a deep character study of two women at the helm in a time when men laid claim to power as if it were their birthright. While Ronan’s role as the titular character automatically means that the focus will be solely on her, it is Robbie’s Elizabeth, with her enigmatic persona and oscillating mood swings, who intrigues that much more. It would perhaps have been fitting to accord Robbie increased screen time, but that's sadly not the case. Because, after all, the fates of both England and Scotland, lay in the hands of these two remarkable women. Instead of a 65-35 type of film (with Ronan’s Mary getting the bulk of screen space), it ought to have been a 55-45 kind of script. Special mention goes to the supporting cast, and especially to Guy Pearce, who plays William Cecil, Queen Elizabeth’s most trusted advisor. He may not necessarily be at the centre of the frame, but his counsel to the queen (with more than a few axes to grind) is portrayed quite powerfully by an in-form Pearce.
Director: Josie Rourke
Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Margot Robbie, Jack Lowden, Joe Alwyn, Guy Pearce, David Tennant
It is 1561, and Mary Stuart, the recently-widowed Catholic Queen of Scotland, has returned from France to assume her throne. She is young and idealistic, believing in peace and harmony as the way forward. But despite her best efforts in assuring her predominantly Protestant people that they are free to worship in any manner they see fit, she has doubters. The biggest among them is cleric John Knox, who insults her openly and questions her ability, as a woman, to lead. She dismisses Knox, and the latter begins inciting the people to mount a rebellion.
Back in England, Mary’s cousin, Elizabeth, is the Protestant Queen. Being as yet unmarried and childless, her privy council fears that the English queen will be challenged by the Scottish monarch, who has greater claim to rule both England and Scotland, and this makes Elizabeth uneasy. Though there is a strange regard the cousins share for one another, both are wary of the other’s intentions. As a ruse, Elizabeth sends English nobleman Lord Darnley to Scotland. Mary is suspicious of his presence at first, but begins falling in love with him as time passes. Her acceptance of Darnley’s marriage proposal leaves both countries in crisis. Not long after the marriage, it is revealed that Lord Darnley is homosexual. With her credibility at an all-time low, Mary must prepare herself to face a rebellion that springs from within her shores.
As in all standout political dramas, the checklist remains the same: trust no one; always be wary of your advisors; power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely; nothing is ever as it seems; and, too much idealism is a liability when it comes to leading your country. Mary Queen of Scots has all these in abundance, but what makes it all the more fascinating is that it is based on events that would shape the course of history. Exchanges between Mary and Elizabeth and their strange fascination and admiration for one another, despite being rivals fighting for the same spoils, form the best parts of the narrative. One would ultimately sign an order for the other’s execution, but it is the regard for each other’s courage in the face of predatory and power-hungry men, that makes a lasting impression.