Film review: Mary, Queen of Scots

The problem with the remake of Mary Queen of Scots isn’t that you don’t learn anything new from it. It’s that you’re likely to learn less from it. Director Josie Rourke presents a beautifully produced costume drama, and a story with so much natural drama that the question is what to leave out. The result in this case is a film that overlooks the flaws of its protagonist and underplays the strengths of its antagonist — falling into the same traps into which the real Mary Stuart fell.

Saoirse Ronan portrays Mary Stuart as a fierce trailblazer of sorts, a woman who attempts to rule in a man’s world with clarity and charity only to fall victim to the men around her and the one woman who mattered most. Ronan delivers a fine performance in that context — passionate, intelligent, and principled. Margot Robbie plays Elizabeth I as a woman riddled with self-doubt and burdened by Mary’s grievances. Both are gritty and excellent performances, and both are based on certain aspects of the historical figures which they play, but both also miss the main qualities of those historical figures, as does the film itself.

The original Mary, Queen of Scots in 1972 hit the nail more on the head. Mary Stuart was impulsive, emotional, and lacked any good political sense, where Elizabeth was calculating and in control. Having just been widowed after a short political marriage in France, where she had spent most of her life (and would have spoken with a French rather than Scottish accent), Mary returned to Scotland as queen and stranger. Her Protestant half-brother Lord Moray controlled the throne and the lords, which she failed to recognize, and his support for Mary was meant to leave her as a figurehead to settle a highly volatile domestic political situation. Her marriage to her Catholic cousin Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley undid her brothers’ plans and undermined her power base. To some extent, Mary was abused by those around her, but to a greater extent she was the author of her own undoing.

Meanwhile, the film paints Elizabeth as vacillating and despairing. Elizabeth played her own part in manipulating the Scottish lords, however, as did her privy council. Elizabeth was always on guard against an uprising that might put Mary on her throne, which is why she pressed her own confidante Robert Dudley as a matrimonial choice for Mary. The marriage to Darnley was tantamount to a superseding claim to the throne, and a Catholic one at that. Elizabeth may not have acted decisively in any one moment, but protecting her claim to the throne and its Protestant ascendancy was behind every strategic move.

That doesn’t make the film unworthy, but the lack of context creates a major problem for viewers — a lack of coherence. Without questioning its protagonist’s supposed virtues, the film makes Mary even more of a pawn than she actually might have been, subject to the whims of evil lords around her. At times it appears that misfortune falls out of the sky and renders Mary into a pinball between bad and worse. A more realistic portrait would have created a very different dynamic and a real irony: while Mary’s missteps embolden and infuriate the men in her court and undoes what little power she actually had, Elizabeth strengthened her own power in a man’s world in the kingdom next door. That, however, wouldn’t make Mary very sympathetic as a heroine, which seems to be the main interest behind this remake.

It’s still fun to watch as a costume drama, mostly for the excellent performances of its two leads and the main supporting cast. Guy Pearce expertly portrays a Robert Cecil who seems to have been combined with Francis Wolsingham, the latter of whom did most of the work in dealing with Mary Stuart. James McArdle does what he can with his part as Mary’s half-brother. Jack Lowden perhaps gets the most mileage as anyone other than Ronan and Robbie as Darnley, whose romantic nature quickly turns to naked ambition, although he’s also at the center of one sex scene that is flat-out laughable and another that’s cringeworthy at best.

Once you’ve watched this, take another look at the 1972 original Mary Queen of Scots with Vanessa Redgrave and Glenda Jackson. The production isn’t as sumptuous as the new film, but its portrayal of both women allows for more understanding of both their fates while still being largely sympathetic to Mary. For an even better look at the conflict between the two women in its later stages, watch the 4-hour miniseries Elizabeth I with Helen Mirren, perhaps the best and most realistic portrayal of Elizabeth and Mary on screen.

On the Hot Air scaleMary, Queen of Scots gets a 3:

  • 5 – Full price ticket
  • 4 – Matinee only
  • 3 – Wait for Blu-Ray/DVD/PPV rental or purchase
  • 2 – Watch it when it hits Netflix/cable
  • 1 – Avoid at all costs

Mary, Queen of Scots has an R rating for violence and strong sexual content, including simulated rape. I would not recommend screening this for anyone under 17, either in the theater or at home.

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