Treachery and betrayal, and that's just the men in this epic period drama!

By Jonathan Reed

18 January 2019


Treachery, betrayal, debauchery, murder and corruption, and that’s just the men in Mary, Queen of Scots. And as the credits roll, it becomes instinctively clear, Director Josie Rourke (in her directorial debut), fully understands the complex world of a woman reigning in a man’s world.

Mary (Saoirse Ronan), returning to Scotland after the death of her beloved Husband, the former King Of France; finds herself facing obstacle after obstacle to claim the Thrones of both Scotland and England, and become Queen, a position of which is her birth-right.

Though, her biggest obstruction does not appear in the shape of her blood cousin or Sovereign sister, Queen Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie). No, it is the men surrounding both her and Elizabeth, that lead to the dramatic and deadly conclusion, an element of which is not lost on the audience.

In the grander scheme of things, the film is a story of deception and deceit, and how the image of two of Britain’s most revered and feared Monarchs became deeply distorted. Mary, forever seen as a traitor and a woman hellbent on bringing down the Virgin Queen, is explored much more here, and thank goodness. Her character-arc is fleshed out considerably, and it is refreshing to see the story of these two remarkable women told through the eyes of the “traitor”, a Mary who is anything but the sort.

What you quickly understand is, Mary is a woman fighting for an ascension she believes to be ordained by God. A woman who feels, as ruler can unite two countries divided by bloodshed and war. Her aim is simple, but sometimes simplicity can be the most feared.

Mary, Queen of Scots is a very quintessential period film; diving into the depths of the United Kingdom’s broad history. Yet something feels fresh this time around. The story is driven by the women, placing the men as the conspiring gargoyles unable to agree on anything. Mary and Elizabeth are the driving forces, but it never feels patronising. If anything, it’s organic.

Most certainly, this is thanks to performances that are truly formidable. Margot Robbie executes a stunning interpretation of Elizabeth. Her obsession with beauty, self-doubt and that infamous fiery temper are all brought to the smallpox surface of Britain’s most famous Queen. Robbie shines best within the intricacies of Elizabeth, and fully engages with a woman who, most certainly in the latter years of her reign, subdued her entire existence to duty.

Jack Lowden is exceptional as Lord Darnley, the drunk, bi-sexual and plotting second-husband of Mary. His desperation for power and Kingship is, both intriguing and cringeworthy to watch. But perhaps, what is most intriguing about Lowden’s performance and Beau Willimon’s script, is Darnley embodies the weak minded image of the men in the film. He personifies the flaws, and ultimately reliance on the Queen of Scots, whose inner-strength is both beguiling and frightening.

In supporting, David Tennant, Guy Pearce and Adrian Lester all shine in their respective roles, adding to the tone of the film, as the formulating factors behind their Queens.

But, there is only one Queen of Scots and Saoirse Ronan steals the screen each and every time. Her powerhouse performance both enraptures and moves, and the skill of which she transitions from one to another is exemplary. The fear, desperation and anger is never overplayed, it is the subtlety of her quiet convictions which gives strength to Mary’s positioning for the Throne. In her last moments on screen, as she lays her head on the block, it is in Ronan’s unspoken performance which ignites the crescendo to the entire movie.

Also worth mentioning, is the deep blood red dress which is revealed, portraying Mary as a martyr. The costumes are exquisite, as is the hair and make-up, fully transforming Robbie into the fearsome Elizabeth.

© Universal Pictures

The sprawling backdrops of both England and Scotland showcase the rugged landscape Britain has to offer, and plays to the spectacle of the drama which takes place. There is minimal CGI, and in a movie world which is becoming increasingly effects orientated, it is refreshing to see a film which utilises nature instead of computer.

Max Richter writes the stirring soundtrack, which is stunning in both scope and emotion. His melodies perfectly symbolise how a gripping score can enhance a scene and performance, and in Mary’s final moments, as Elizabeth seals her fate; it is spine-tingling stuff.

Whilst many have stated that the film, in places is historically incorrect; one scene which was added, was the meeting between these two embattled Monarchs. Set in a small woodland barn, Elizabeth and Mary meet face-to-face. This, in reality never happened, both ‘sisters’ never actually met. Yet though historically inaccurate, it is the most gripping part of the film and is the payoff the plot builds to. And similarly to Mary’s survival amongst the politics and the conspiring, her desperate begs for her ‘equal’ to help her is as heart-breaking as it is empowering.

It is here where both Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie shine brightest, bringing strong and gripping performances which could rival any man. And in that context, it sums up what Mary, Queen of Scots is.

It isn’t a film solely about treachery, betrayal, debauchery, murder and corruption. It digs deeper into the souls of two Queens who wanted peace and unity above all else. Mary, Queen of Scots, is at its core a film of two extraordinary women living in a man’s world, but refusing to be dominated by it.