Mary Queen of Scots
by Rachel Willis
From a technical perspective, everything about director Josie Rourke’s film, Mary Queen of Scots is nearly perfectly realized.
Saoirse Ronan is resplendent as Mary, the rightful queen of Scotland and contested heir to the throne of England. Margot Robbie is equally enlivening as Mary’s cousin, better known as Elizabeth I.
The film begins with Mary’s return to Scotland at the age of 18 following the death of her husband, the Dauphin of France. As she assumes her rightful throne from her half-brother, she is quickly met with opposition. John Knox (David Tennant), a Protestant minister – and also one of the leader’s of Scotland’s Reformation – immediately dismisses her rule as she is both Catholic and a woman.
From Knox’s initial dissent, more threats emerge, primarily from the English queen, Elizabeth I.
Dual narratives tell the story of Mary and Elizabeth’s rivalry. Through letters, the queens express solidarity, but behind the scenes, Elizabeth worries. Her most loyal advisor, William Cecil (Guy Pearce) stokes those fears. But his genuine affection for Elizabeth is a glaring contrast to Mary, who frequently stands alone.
Much history is condensed in the two hour running time. Because of this, the movie flows smoothly, but history is glossed over, changed, or omitted entirely. While this works, it’s also misleading. Mary’s trusted advisor, David Rizzio, is reduced to a minstrel who is more handmaiden than advisor.
It’s not unusual for a fictional film to mold history to fit a story, but the most disappointing aspect is the portrayal of Mary. The film asserts that Mary was a good queen with a good heart who was an innocent victim of the people around her. This begs the question: Was Mary truly an innocent – a pawn at the mercy of scheming men? Or was she a ruler like any other? One who made mistakes, bad choices, and whose ambition was outmatched by another’s power?
The history surrounding Mary has always been controversial – it’s impossible to know exactly what she knew and what she plotted. But by portraying Mary as a victim, the film reduces her to a caricature rather than a woman – a queen – with agency.
It’s a disappointing decision in an otherwise stunning film.