The story of the rivalry between Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth I is a fascinating one that has stood the test of time as an example of one of history’s most heated family affairs. However, it’s received few big screen adaptations if any at all and it was a matter of time before this battle of royal cousins found its way to the big screen for award season. Thus, we get “Mary Queen of Scots” which explores this family rivalry and the reigns of both queens as they attempted to coexist. A pair of capable actresses take on the roles of the iconic women as the film attempts to dramatize their relationship while also examining how religion, sexism and their own lust for power and control played into their battle for a united thrown in the 1560s and 1570s. So, with such an epic story to tell and some great talent on board to bring it to life is “Mary Queen of Scots” a worthy historical drama or a forgettable attempt to interpret a legendary historical rivalry? Let’s find out. This is my review of “Mary Queen of Scots”.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT
“Mary Queen of Scots” focuses on cousins Mary (Saoirse Ronan) the queen of Scotland and Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie) the queen of England and Ireland in the late 1560s. After the death of her husband, King Francis II of France, Mary returns to her homeland of Scotland where she is rightful heir to the throne and seeks to take the English throne occupied by her cousin as well. Both women find themselves at odds as Mary embraces Catholicism and Elizabeth embraces the Protestant religion while they each battle with their struggles to act as individual people without the control of men. As Mary seeks to obtain the thrones that are rightfully hers by birth the cousins engage in a war of ideals with Mary charming her way closer to usurping her cousin’s position while Elizabeth seeks to peacefully retain her sovereignty despite being unwilling and possibly unable to produce a child and heir. The story explores the struggle between the two women during the Rising of the North and beyond in a confrontation between cousins that would go on to define the fate of two nations.
“Mary Queen of Scots” has a lot to offer viewers looking for a decent historical drama to embrace this award season, but its best aspects might not be what you think. One of this film’s most charming aspects is how well it embraces the time period where it is set with awesome backdrops, period accurate costumes and a willingness to explore numerous different cultural conflicts of the time outside of the basic rivalry between the two royals. It looks beautiful and drops you right into a bygone era of kings and queens. However, as far as historic dramas go this movie tends to benefit more from what it falsifies than it’s attempts at accuracy. If I’m going to be honest the creative liberties taken for this film actually enhance the story and make it more interesting even if it bastardizes the actual facts.
For example the film’s narrative presents Queen Mary’s confidant David Rizzio as a gay man who sleeps with Mary’s second husband Lord Darnley. This is a relationship that is never confirmed in history but it adds some interesting context to the real-life infamous historical event that happened involving both of these men while also touching on a prejudice relevant in today’s reality. Another subplot sees both queens trying to maintain their individuality and rule without the dominance of men, touching on the role of women and sexism in a way that is relevant to today but could also have been a very possible issue both women experienced in their actual lives. Many critics have bashed this movie for its historical inaccuracies but for me they made the final product more entertaining so at the very least they worked to the film’s benefit.
But the most glaring historical error in the film is the eventual meeting of the two queens which to me is actually the best part in the entire movie even if it never actually occurred. This is because the two actresses that play Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth I are outstanding in this film. Saoirse Ronan portrays the more aggressive and charming Mary, Queen of Scots while Margot Robbie brings to life the more professional and reserved personality of Elizabeth I creating immediate contrast between these women and making them feel like both equals and exact opposites. The way they carry themselves, the way they talk, their priorities and goals for the thrones, the way they interact with their subjects, all of this is explored, and every detail allows their motivations and individual natures to shine. In some ways it shows how the two queens were alike. In other ways it shows the stark contrast between who they were as people. But the most beautiful thing about it is neither are presented as true villains and heroes in their own story. Both women have their flaws, their demons and their weaknesses that bleed through the facades they put up to look strong in front of their subjects and each other. While their eventual meeting may be a blatant rewriting of history it also brings all of these great qualities to the forefront and makes for an epic standoff that brings everything the film has worked towards to an excellent peak.
The rest of the cast also helps bring energy to the screen keeping things interesting even despite what is a pretty boring screenplay. The likes of David Tenant, Jack Lowden, Joe Alwyn, Guy Pearce and others add their own talents to the story and while few of them get really notable roles it’s clear the talent is better than the writing of this film. Really all of the good dialogue is spent on the leading ladies, but what the rest of the script lacks in substance the actors make up for in personality and actual acting ability. This project leans very heavily on its performers to get the job done and thankfully they all seemed up to the task. When you take that into consideration along with the excellent performances of the two leads and the visual style of this film there’s enough here to call “Mary Queen of Scots” a decent viewing experience even if it proves to be imperfect.
And that brings me to what I didn’t enjoy about this film and I might as well pick up where I left off, with the screenplay. I loved the acting in this movie and the two leads should definitely be commended, but the problem is there’s not a whole lot they had to work with in this movie. The script isn’t necessarily horrible. In fact, it’s downright passable, but it just feels basic and simple as well as inconsistent. One moment one of the queens will be spouting something profound and the next moment the dialogue feels contrived and uninspired. Looking at the screenplay as a whole “Mary Queen of Scots” is poorly paced and at times isn’t really as interesting a story as it should have been. It’s clear the writers wanted to touch on as much of the story as possible, even with the use of creative license, but there were many moments and sequences that felt drawn out or insignificant to understanding the bigger picture.
That leads into my most pressing point about this film and that’s the fact that while I give it a pass for using some of that creative license to help make the story more interesting this does NOT feel liek a movie trying to be entertaining. I can compare it to a far superior film released just a week or two ago, “The Favourite”. Both films have similar concepts and tackle cousins trying to move up in the world, but “The Favourite” fully embraced it’s creative licence and combined it with smart and fun writing to tell a historical tale without trying to take itself too serious. “Mary Queen of Scots” is the opposite, taking itself so seriously that it feels like it’s supposed to be representing reality when it doesn’t.
The fact that the most interesting and enjoyable aspects of this movie are the events that weren’t confirmed to be true or that didn’t actually happen at all is probably it’s biggest sin. The actual historic story here feels boring and forsaken with only the original content and the capable performers working to bring any life to what should have been a very compelling tale without the need for too much original writing to make it interesting. “Mary Queen of Scots” is a very watchable film, and one I can say I enjoyed to some extent, but I think I enjoyed it for all the wrong reasons. I enjoyed it because of how is changed history and altered the story to fit modern themes and make the characters more engaging and relatable, but I don’t think that was the goal the filmmakers were going for. At least it doesn’t feel that way. It’s a historical drama that’s more drama than history and that is perhaps its biggest flaw as well as it’s most entertaining aspect. It’s alright to change details to make a story more engaging, but when you have to change so much to make the story fun and watchable you have to go all in or find the right balance between fact and fiction. “Mary Queen of Scots” does neither which makes the truth and the fabrications contrast each other greatly in the final product.
As far as historical dramas go “Mary Queen of Scots” is perfectly fine…but how good it actually is might depend on what you’re looking for. I did enjoy the movie to a point with its awesome acting, especially from Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie, and its fun and period-accurate design and atmosphere, but the irony is I found the inaccuracies to be more interesting than what actually happened and that’s not what I suspect the filmmakers were looking for. Many critics have called its bastardization of actual recorded facts the film’s weakest aspect but for me it actually made this tale of cousins trying to outsmart each other for a throne interesting and compelling where the handling of the actual historical facts felt flat. As ironic as this is it’s hard for me to hate this film because the creative license did help me enjoy it, but whereas it seems like these details were added in to enhance the historical parts of this tale the actual history is just not as memorable or interesting to watch. There’s a clear disconnect between fact and fiction and it’s frustrating to say the least. In the end though, I can safely recommend “Mary Queen of Scots” because it does bring a neat and popular story to life in a way that keeps your attention and combines history with modern themes to become more than just a simple glorified documentary, but I wish the real history was as exciting as it should have been. This is a story that should not have been this complicated to adapt. All in all, it’s a decent film worthy of your viewing, but like its queens it’s also one that also earns the criticisms it bears.