Review: Mary Queen of Scots

A grim and accurate telling of the two Queens vying for control over Great Britain.

During the 1500s, young Mary Stuart returned to her homeland of Scotland from France, and being Queen of Scotland she also had claim to the throne of England as well, should she have an heir. But matters become worse as political power struggles rage, supposedly in support of the two Queens, but perhaps for more pitiful reasons…

Directorial debut for Josie Rourke, Mary Queen of Scots sees the two excellent actresses Saoirse Ronan (Lady Bird) and Margot Robbie (I, Tonya) as Mary Stuart and Elizabeth I respectively, depicted in a surprisingly grim experience. The film has a UK 15 rating for a reason; at times very bloody, and often displaying HBO’s Game of Thrones levels of sex. It is quite a dour experience without much levity… Of course, if you know the first thing about Mary, this shouldn’t be that surprising!

As one would also expect, the two actresses are phenomenal in their roles. The film does not glamorise the two figures, far from it, and the actresses revel in portraying very human and flawed individuals. Regardless of the film’s possible reception, the two women have no fear of being further recognised as masters of their craft.
Similarly, the film is not portraying one country as greater than the other, which might be surprising to some: Mary is often considered a martyr, representing Scotland’s struggle against their English overlords. But the story keeps both notably flawed, but also very strong-willed. If you are looking for the themes of “woe is Scotland; they have terrible misfortune…” or “FREEDOM!” you won’t get it here.
A lot of the tyranny and antagonism comes from the advisors and men in the background, as well as a lot of religious strife. The film features just one battle, and it is more of a skirmish, preferring to keep a theatrical feel to proceedings (befitting director Rourke’s experience in that field).


One should address some of the ire this film has generated. IMDB has a surprisingly slow 6/10 score, with dozens of reviews claiming the film is revisionist, politically correct, and historically inaccurate. The most obvious issue is Mary speaking with a Scottish accent, despite having grown up in France. The film does actually address this somewhat; early in the story she speaks French to her Scottish brethren. It may also be an excuse, but general audiences will not buy into a factually accurate “Queen of Scots” who spoke with a French accent.
Another issue audiences seem to have, is the inclusion of black actors Adrian Derrick-Palmer and Adrian Lester, as it would be unlikely for people of colour to be present in 16th century Britain. While it did seem unusual, especially as an envoy of the Queen of England, travelling alone for long distances… But these characters have relatively small roles otherwise, it did not bother me especially.
If these are what you consider to be “historical inaccuracies” and will infuriate you, perhaps you should wait for another adaptation…

These things are relatively petty complaints though, in light of the two women leading the charge, as well as the authentic location shooting in Scotland and England. There are notable locations, from countryside to castles and landmarks.
Perhaps the least compelling moment in this film, is the scene most prominent in the trailers; when Mary and Elizabeth meet. As there’s no record of this ever happening, it isn’t helped by this scene playing out very deliberately. The two characters become the embodiment of their countries, the script becomes very trailer-bait, compared to the more nuanced and subtle dialogue heard elsewhere.

Overall though, it is a solid historic drama. What with the current, heaving political strife in the United Kingdom between Scotland and England, this film is surprisingly resonant. It even relates to American politics; the mess of betrayals, backstabbing, shadowy conspirators, and a duped public.
There’s a lot to appreciate, although it might not be a film you will regularly watch.



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