Historically accurate? Not really. Riveting? Quite.
Towards the royal encounter of the imaginary kind at the climax of Mary Queen of Scots, Elizabeth utters: “How cruel men are.” Very apt, for the film acts not only as a (debatably false) work of history, but a reminder of the ruthless, institutional disregard of the “whims of women” by men, as one troglodyte splutters. Despite the 450 year gap, this period piece feels rivetingly apropos to the current landscape. Not to mention its diversity; colourblind casting, two female leads and a woman in the director’s chair. Bob Dylan’s famous words about changing times come to mind.
The film chronicles the 16th century battle of mights between Queen Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie) and Mary, Queen of Scots (Saoirse Ronan). In very, very simple terms; Mary returned to Scotland from France after losing her husband. Upon arrival, she makes her position perfectly clear as Queen of Scotland. As a Catholic, she is seen as a threat to both Scotland and England’s Protestant supremacy, none more so than John Knox (David Tennant, whose work is more aggressively showy than a real stretch of his ability), a cleric who after swift dismissal from the Queen’s court, begins a tirade of hateful, abusive sermons. The problem for Elizabeth, unmarried and childless, is that Mary has a serious, dangerous claim to the English throne due to her bloodline.
So forth begins manipulations across both sides, ushering men for Mary to marry in the hope that it lowers her claim. What’s innately refreshing is the dynamic between the two monarchs; neither hate each other, even hundreds of miles apart their comments rarely descend into spite. The agony of the fateful story is they were the only two people that could truly understand one another’s struggles; two Queens in a land overrun by the machiavellian ways of the opposite gender. Josie Rourke leans the film on its two titanic performances, a task the duo hand with grace and ferocity. Ronan’s is the more wholesome character arc; from slight uneasiness to a pragmatic force of power, all while handling that deviously tricky Scottish accent, rarely landing on a blip. Robbie’s is denser though, conveying maternal despair and loneliness under regal authority. When the pair finally do meet (after wishy-washy shots of sheets), think Heat-levels of screen magnetism.
Rourke tries to strike an interplay between the two throughout the film, intercutting their whereabouts, but instead disturbs the rather elegant, vulnerably slow rhythm to which the story unravels. The main issue is how gripping the entire feature is; if you’re going to take fictional liberties with history, at least make them exciting. But Rourke and writer Beau Willimon play things slow and loose, conjuring up entirely make-believe meetings and detrimental acts of cunnilingus, while botching the saga’s sense of time completely. Aside from the royals, the script rarely rises to the occasion of the “tumultuous times”, feeding the clergy impactful vitriol in doses but padding out the rest of the cast’s dialogue.
Max Richter’s composition embeds firmly within the storytelling but can’t quite find a way to elevate into a glorious crescendo or stir up the trauma, mostly coasting along. However, John Mathieson’s cinematography does anything but settle for adequate. While the interior scenes can feel more small-screen than cinematic (saved by the lusciously crafted costume design and beautiful make-up, which has rightfully earned Oscar nominations), he steeps frames in cold, stunning landscapes. You can practically feel the brisk, mountainous air of the Scottish vistas as the view takes your breath away. The most convincing VisitScotland ad yet maybe, but Rourke’s film establishes a captivating sense of place, acting as a transportive, if not reliable history lesson.
Ill-pacing and bland storytelling betray this powerhouse showcase of Ronan and Robbie’s boundless talents.
Cameron Frew – @FrewFilm