Mary Queen of Scots: Have We Learned Anything in 450 Years? | Review

by - Wednesday, December 05, 2018


Saoirse Ronan is on a roll and keeping her momentum going after her well deserved success with Greta Gerwig's, Lady Bird. The 24 year old actress has been nominated for 3 Oscars, 4 BAFTAs and 3 Golden Globes, winning one earlier this year and definitely deserves to have (and I believe will have) more under her belt as her career progresses. Will this film be that for her? I cannot say but I know it's going to be a contender and I'll be surprised if it doesn't heavily populate the BAFTAs this year, rivalled only perhaps by The Favourite.

An interview sprouted in July from the BBC with Dr Estelle Paranque who expressed that it may cause people to sustain the "wrong version of their own history" and while I believe there is merit in telling an entirely historically accurate story, there is no claim that the story is "based on true events" at the beginning and if you watch the credits it disclaims itself with a line similar to "although this film is based on true events, some elements have been fictionalised". 

There are valid debates on either side of the argument but I do not head into these types of film anticipating a history lesson, nor; I'm sure, will most audiences. Most biographical films have to tweak here and there to keep audiences entertained, especially with multiplexes that are so heavily crowded with big blockbusters.

The film is slow to start and I will admit, my mind got a little muddled in the back and forth between the exposition of Mary and Elizabeth's relationship and the current state of affairs. The film picked up with one of the major plot points of Mary meeting Henry Darnley, played so well by Jack Lowden that I despised his smarmy face the entire time. The attempt to nuance his outrageous behaviour to Mary with the slight sympathetic edge of a man confused by his sexuality was cheap and didn't pay off but I believe that was intended. He was vicious, spineless and incredibly representative of the power hungry men surrounding both queens.

That's the thing that hooked me in to this visual feast, inside all the theatrics of the costumes and the make up and the hair was a story of historical blame of women for actions of men. The story begins when Mary is 18 with a confident Saoirse Ronan at the helm. She seems entirely settled in this role, as does Margot Robbie who takes on the part of Elizabeth, a queen who is fearful of her future as her chances to bare children grow more and more slim. She taps into the sensitivity of the role and often refers to herself as male, saying "I am more man than I am woman now" to Mary during their fictionalised meeting.


The women are polar opposites and yet director, Josie Rourke, poses all these parallels between the two, often putting them in similar situations miles apart through her beautifully crafted portrait like shots. "Sisters do not abandon sisters" is said by one of Mary's council women and I feel as though it acts as a true north for this film. There's such an instinctive contemporary urgency with this story despite the 450+ year gap between now and then. Mary is ridiculed by the men of Scotland, essentially only for being sure of her own sexuality and beliefs, labelled "harlot" and "murderer" for actions that men have taken against her. There are some horrific sex scenes that are not done with careless energy, they are there for a reason. They aid the redemption of Mary's outward behaviour, as I've already stated, I do not know the true ins and outs of the history but I am taking this story as it is posed on screen.

There are a few shots dotted throughout that zoom so far out that the plains of Scotland look overwhelmingly daunting and the people on them look so insignificantly tiny. I can never speak to a director's intentions because only they know what ideas they are pursuing but it felt to me that she was showing the finite fragility of life itself. There were all these terrible things happening in a small part of the world and yet at the end of the day we are so small in this giant creation. Mary often references her God and uses faith to carry her from one event to the next. "Many times you have said I cannot do what I have done" is a line of hers that stuck with me. It was chilling because the idea of this one woman doing so much in a world that is so large changed so much of history. The women in this film were fighting fights we still battle today and I wonder how much longer we will have to continue to fight.


Mary Queen of Scots hits UK cinemas 18th January 2019.

Until next time

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