Mary Queen of Scots follows the shifting politics and power dynamics in Scotland during the titular Mary’s reign between 1561 and 1567, focusing on Mary’s relationships with her council of advisers, her husband, and Queen Elizabeth I of England.
Given the the film covers six full years of Mary’s rule, and how contentions and unstable that period of time was, there are a ton of twisting and turning allegiances and shifts of power that the film has to cover. In order to fit all of that into a two hour run time the film has to move so quickly through all the events, that we never really get to spend enough time with these characters, to get into the reasons behind why they are making the decisions they do. We also don’t really get any real sense of the passage of time throughout the film, except maybe during character’s pregnancies. I did come out of Mary Queen of Scots wondering if this story might have been better told as some kind of miniseries rather than a one off film.
But that is not to say that Mary Queen of Scots is a bad films. This is an absolutely fascinating rollercoaster of politics from the Tudor period, and away from the usual focus of the times like Henry VIII. This is truly a fascinating story and period of history, and even though Beau Willimon screenplay does take some historical liberties, that isn’t necessarily an awful thing. A lot has been made about the fact that Mary and Elizabeth never actually met, but it is great to see them interacting and definitely a highlight of the film.
And with the two lead actresses giving them great scenes like that is crucial, because Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie as Mary and Elizabeth respectively are absolutely the stars the show.Saoirse is outstanding in the titular role, playing Mary as she goes through her numerous trials and tribulations, and always allowing her fighting spirit to shine through, even in scenes where she is visibly beaten down. But even though she isn’t in as much of the film as you’d expect from the marketing it is Margot Robbie who steals the film whenever she appears. It’s an understated yet powerful performance, and one that drips with pathos and vulnerability.
There are a lot of great supporting performances as well. Guy Pearce shone as William Cecil, an advisor to Elizabeth, it helps that he gets to play off Robbie, but there’s no doubt that Pearce is great in his own right. Jack Lowden as Mary’s husband Lord Darnley has a swagger and charm to him, but a fragileness as well. David Tennant as protestant cleric John Knox and Adrian Lester as Lord Randolph, Elizabeth’s ambassador to Scotland, are also really great in smaller roles. But the whole cast across the board feels strong.
And despite feeling as though Mary Queen of Scots rushes through a lot of the film there are moments of real brilliant as well. Almost any scene we get with Margot Robbie as Elizabeth exceptional, the scenes in Mary’s court to are some of the best in the film. But it is that scene of the meeting between Mary and Elizabeth that really stands out. It feels as though this is the moment that it feels as though everything has been building toward, and it absolutely does not disappoint when it arrives. Its two incredible actresses playing off one another, and Mary Queen of Scots should be seen for it alone.
I’m always someone who does tend to be more positive toward films that look at Scottish history, so even though Mary Queen of Scots has its issue in pacing I thoroughly enjoyed it. There is definitely a lot of good aspects to the film, great political intrigue, cool battle sequences, and some superb performances. It’s certainly one worth watching.