Saoirse Ronan gives a commanding performance as the titular role in Josie Rourke’s directorial debut Mary Queen of Scots, but the rest of the film struggles to keep up with her. Each element feels simply disjointed, and its pace inconsistent.
After a period of sporadically cutting between the lives of the two queens (Ronan’s Mary and Margot Robbie’s Elizabeth I) we settle in nicely with Mary at her castle in Holyrood. Here she is completely endearing, Rourke and screenwriter Beau Willimon bring a playfulness to the historical figure. She dances and laughs with her gentlewomen, and when a kind servant tells her he feels more like a sister to them then a brother, she responds, “you make for a beautiful sister.” Of course, it’s hard to know just how progressive Mary actually was, but this feminist flare makes for a likable and timely young queen. She is also a fair ruler – as the plot progresses, it appears the binary oppositions at play are not in the slightest Mary and Elizabeth, but rather the two women against the men of their council.
In Mary Queen of Scots, it is a continuous battle of wise women and cruel men. As Mary offers thoughtful solutions to keep the peace amongst religions in Scotland, she is challenged and mocked, her power-hungry councilmen would rather be harsh and focused and not let “wise men service the whims of women.” It is incredibly frustrating to watch these women be continuously undermined and taken advantage of. It is also far more violent than anticipated, with pools of bloodshed for the sake of the crown.
Margot Robbie plays her part well, stoic and restrained behind Elizabeth’s armour of being “more man than woman” due to her infinite responsibility. Adrian Lester also stands out as Elizabeth’s quietly opinionated messenger. The main reason as to why this film didn’t quite work was its tone. The score was repetitive and at moments inappropriate, as though not quite certain what the audiences were supposed to feel.
Rourke has a good eye in some beautiful and brief moments, and she shows promise. It is clear that she comes from a theatre background, serving as Artistic Director at the Donmar Warehouse since 2011 – the theatrical stillness of some scenes and the exchanges between the characters matter are commendable. She moves to this medium completely assured, and as much as Mary Queen of Scots didn’t quite come together, it’s very exciting to anticipate what she may do next.
by Millicent Thomas
Millicent Thomas is a proud Mancunian studying Film & Publishing at Bath Spa University. Hobbies include video-games, theatre, and waiting for Charles Xavier to show up and tell her she’s the world’s most powerful mutant. Her favourite films are Her, Logan, Columbus and the Spy-Kids trilogy. You can follow her on Instagram at @millicentathomas and Twitter and Letterboxd at @millicentonfilm