Overall: 4 stars
Dir: Josie Rourke; Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Margot Robbie, Jack Lowden, Joe Alwyn, and David Tennant. Cert: 15, 124 mins
A candle is snuffed out in the dark and Mary Stuart leans over the executioner block. We are in 1587 but right before the execution, we will be brought back to the 1560s when Mary returns to Scotland.
Mary Queen of Scots starts from the end of the story. The flashback in the middle do not quite explain why she had to die but it draws a beautiful confrontation between Mary Stuart, played by Saoirse Ronan, and Elizabeth I, interpreted by Margot Robbie, humanizing both the characters and making them relatable to modern women.
The film rubishes the idea that Mary and Elizabeth were destined to be enemies and shows how their rivalry was perhaps caused by the misogynistic men in their courts.
Mary Queen of Scots is also the cinematic debut of Josie Rourke, who brings many dramatic scenes on screen. An innovation, which perhaps risks boring or annoying the viewer but perhaps that was the intention. The secret meeting scene shot in a remote cottage almost frustrates the viewer as much as Elizabeth hiding behind billowing sheets does so with Mary.
The fictionalized meeting happens almost at the end of the film. Mary has lost everything and Elizabeth has become more “man than woman”. Yet these two appear more similar than what history may have taught us as the both of them have to deal with male power struggles and the political fight for power between Protestants and Catholics.
Here, Mary and Elizabeth become 16th-century feminist heroes as they stand up for themselves against viscous men, particularly Mary. She has to endure Jhon Nox's attacks on her power and she has to marry one husband after another but will never totally submit herself to any man.
Also, Robbie’s stunning interpretation makes Elizabeth a very relatable female character. In order to keep her crown, Elizabeth is the queen who chooses “to be a man”, not a mother or a wife but she never really stops thinking about maternity, looking at her shadow imagining that she was carrying a child. This can make the viewer reflect on how many women still feel the need to chose between maternity and career.
Many will empathize with the character because in front of Mary, “her sister”, she feels insecure. An insecurity that the majority of young people feel comparing each others pictures on instagram today. In the film, Instagram is replaced by accurate paintings of a young Mary who is everything Elizabeth is not. The Instagram filters are replaced by a red wig and a ghostly white makeup. The wig covers her almost bald head and the makeup covers all of the pox scars Elizabeth had. However, none of these things can make Elizabeth as young and as beautiful as Mary. Elizabeth’s insecurity soon becomes jealousy and because of that and because of political reasons Elizabeth refused Mary the help she needed.
On the side, there are the male characters who act as either villains or as “wives” of the two Queens. In particular Guy Pearce, in the role of Sir William Cecil who always stands back to Robbie up until the hilarious moment when she says “you are the closest thing I shall ever have to a wife”.
Really convincing is David Tennant as misogynistic protestant reformer Jhon Nox. He nearly looks unrecognizable from some of the previous roles he interpreted, notably Harry potter’s Barty Crouch Jr. Also from the Harry Potter franchise is Ian Hart who, in this film, gives everything as the scheming Lord Maitland, one of Mary’s main advisors.
Blurring the line between freind and villain for much of the film is James McArdle, Mary’s half-brother. Through his numerous but short appearances in the story, McArdle allows us to understand the inner conflict of the man: on one side, he is very affectionate to Mary and her son, James ( the future first King of both Scotland and England). But on the otherside, he is a man of his time who has gone through many wars to protect Mary's regency.
In the end, Mary Queen of Scots tells a well-known piece of British history and at the same time surprises everybody. It shows two historical enemies as two “sisters” divided by religion, politics, men and territory. Divisions that even now still exist in politics and society.