Mary Queen of Scots is a handsome but flawed biopic

by James Robins / 28 January, 2019
RelatedArticlesModule - Mary Queen of Scots movie review

The star-studded Tudor period-drama isn’t quite worth losing one’s head over.

It took a while – a few centuries, in fact – for historians to haul Mary Stuart out from the basement and dust off her gowns. She was an archvillain for so long: a papist dupe in a land of Protestants, denounced by Reformation leader John Knox as a “strumpet”, haunted by rumours of murder and rebellion.

Now, in Mary Queen of Scots, a handsome but flawed biopic, we have a history so revisionist that it bears little resemblance to history at all. This is the valorised version of her short-lived rule and tragic demise.

Of course, Mary and cousin Liz have featured in movies forever. Dramatisation always demands cut corners, split differences, composite characters. Narratives must be pared down and themes elevated. What matters is whether those themes and characters are interesting – pedants be damned.

As played by Saoirse Ronan, Mary is fierce and independent, an enlightened and tolerant sovereign, a proto-feminist icon despite being a feudal monarch. From the moment she disembarks at Leith in 1561, Catholic Mary is seen as an imminent threat to Protestant England with a greater claim to the crown held by her cousin Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie).

So begins a decades-long struggle for supremacy. This being a script written by Beau Willimon, co-creator of the US version of House of Cards, there is much scheming, treason and betrayal conducted in dark rooms.

What’s curious about Willimon’s story is the extent to which sex, sexism and gender are pushed to the fore, whereas the arguably more relevant religious fanaticism of the day is sidelined. Though they never actually met – they do here, though – Mary and Elizabeth are bound by their predicaments: female royals with rapacious men for advisers who could turn at any moment. They range from the silky and conniving William Cecil (Guy Pearce) to the aforementioned Knox (David Tennant), who denounces “a woman with a crown” as “worse than pestilence”.

The cousins are opposites as well as mirrors: Mary thrice-married, with one child (the future King James), whereas Elizabeth was famously chaste, refusing to wed for fear a husband would threaten her power. For all the high drama of Mary’s story, it is actually Robbie’s performance as Elizabeth that cuts through stronger. “I am a man,” she declares mournfully – a clever line revealing just how much she had to sublimate herself to the throne and the role of queen.

All of which really is intriguing. But this envelope-pushing only goes so far. The look and feel of the film will be familiar to anyone who’s seen a period piece before: formal, staid, stuffy and theatrical. Nobody’s ruffs ever get too ruffled. The ideas are ambitious, the execution (shall we say) less so.

IN CINEMAS NOW

★★★

This article was first published in the February 2, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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