I’m a history buff and I especially love British history, including the time of Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth the First. I was excited when I first saw the news of the film and even more thrilled to go see the screening. There are some powerful and stunning performances, especially Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie. But there are some aspects that are uneven and unbalanced, especially the writing of Elizabeth’s character. While engaging, I have some problems with whether this was truly accurate to either woman.
Written by a man, based on a book by a man and directed by a woman, there are some elements of the historical narrative that hold together well. The movie begins with Mary Stuart’s (Saoirse Ronan) return to Scotland in 1561, after the death of her first husband, Francois of France. Mary is eager to rule Scotland and lay claim to England as heir to Queen Elizabeth (Margot Robbie). Elizabeth sends envoys but holds off on any acknowledgment of Mary as her heir due to a desire to prevent discord over Mary’s Catholic faith. Scotland is divided between the Protestants and Catholics as well. Elizabeth proposes Mary wed a English Protestant, Lord Dudley (Joe Alwyn). Instead Mary falls for her cousin, Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden), creating discord and chaos in Scotland and an heir to the English throne.
Historically, the large details are accurate. Mary did return to Scotland in 1561 and she did marry Lord Darnley. Elizabeth was threatened by her cousin, did have the pox and did arm the Scottish Protestants to sow more discord in Scotland. Mary’s brother did betray her. In these elements, the film is completely authentic, the machinations and the politics fully accurate to the people involved.
What makes the film at its most engaging, though, are the pair of actresses who play Mary and Elizabeth. Saoirse Ronan is dynamic and formidable, passionate as Mary. Margot Robbie brings vulnerability and power to the role of Elizabeth. Their performances are strong and charismatic.
Guy Pearce as Lord Cecil is also compelling with the actor playing Lord Darnley doing a perfect portrayal of his character. David Tennant is amazing as Presbyterian leader John Knox in his ability to portray fervour and deep conviction. His character is difficult to like but that only highlights the power of the actors performance. I also found Ismael Cruz Cordova, the actor playing David Rizzio, to be charming.
Another element that brings the era to life for me were the costumes and the cinematography. The scenery was quite beautiful and managed to feel like fifteenth century Scotland and England. The clothing of the men and women fit the times. There were actors and actresses of color which fits with the forgotten history of the time and I appreciated that added touch. The set design and the costumes worked to keep me grounded in the time period.
What caused me to lose connection with the plot were some of the finer points of history. First, Lord Darnley. While it is accurate that Henry and Mary did separate, it is not proven that Henry was homosexual. There has been speculation but nothing as blatant as shown in the film. Even more in question is his supposed partner David Rizzio. Rizzio is painted as beautiful, innocent and like a ‘sister’ to Mary. In reality, David was ugly, yet charming and manipulative, an influence on Mary as he took bribes left and right. He was far from innocent but rather corrupt and suspected of being a papal spy. Yet none of this was shown in the movie, leaving the film unbalanced and skewed in the presentation of Mary.
In addition to these details, is the role Bothwell (Martin Compston) played. In the film, he takes some questionable actions. Per history, Bothwell’s actions don’t match with history and end up portraying Mary as weaker than reality. This same carries through for Elizabeth. Throughout the movie, her choices are presented as though through fear and doubt rather than the cold ruthlessness she is known for, sentiment and envy instead of reacting to the true threat Mary represented.
One of the themes that the film promotes is that of sisterhood, both the bond between Elizabeth and Mary as well as the bond between Mary and her attendants including David Rizzio, her secretary. While there are some striking scenes developing this theme, it rings false and overdone. One of the reasons is that Mary and Elizabeth were not known for being friendly so while they may have acted as sisters, it isn’t something commonly known. It also is spoken of in exposition rather than being shown. The idea isn’t well developed and ends up lacking emotional depth. This combined with some rather graphic scenes makes me feel that the writer is attempting to cater to women without an understanding of how real women respond and react, leaving the characterization of both queens unbalanced with a theme that flounders. That said, there are some strong scenes and Mary, especially is depicted as formidable.
Overall, if you are a history buff of the time, you might be willing to overlook some of the finer details that the film glosses over in order to enjoy the fiery Mary Queen of Scots portrayed on film in what is overall a historically accurate movie. Saoirse Ronan is particularly skillful in her presentation of Mary, portraying her as intelligent, powerful and yet, still manipulated by the men around her. Margot Robbie performs incredibly as Queen Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin and counterpart, displaying wit, political savvy with vulnerability that is unexpected. With excellent performances from the entire cast, it is worth seeing for the political maneuvering, backstabbing, and conniving. While the bond of sisterhood is prevalent throughout the movie, it is far more interesting to focus on Mary out manipulating and out thinking the men around her and watching Elizabeth discuss her reasons for not marrying. Each woman was unconventional for her time and if viewers focus on those elements, the film is enjoyable.
Rating: 3.5 queens out of 5