Mary, Queen of Scots (2018)

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 12/25/18 10:58:13

"An impressively modern tale of 16th Century women."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

There's an interesting sort of irony at the center of "Mary Queen of Scots" that the filmmakers appear to have a difficult resolving - that the monarch of the title is in many ways brought low by her own ambition, but it is sometimes difficult to fully grasp that because there is a great deal of focus on how such ambition would not have been nearly so dangerous for a man in a similar position. Of course, I'm saying that as a man; a woman is more likely to clearly see those facets as linked than countering each other. That paradox is in many ways the strength of the film; it makes Mary a complex human being rather than just a morality tale, and an intriguing historical figure for how these factors interact.

Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan) had already had an eventful life by the time she returned to her native Scotland at the age of 18 - sent to live in France as a girl for fear that she would be endangered as a Catholic in a Scotland that was becoming increasingly Protestant, married to the heir to France's throne at 15 and widowed three years later - and assumed her position as Queen, her half-brother James (James McArdle) having served as regent. Mary also has a claim to the throne of England held by Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie), who attempts to counter by sending her paramour Robert Dudley (Joe Alwyn) to court her. Mary spurns him and marries Henry Darnley (Jack Lowden), believing that producing an heir will strengthen her claim to the English throne, especially since Elizabeth has chosen not to marry and have a child of her own. This may have been the best course, as it seems every man in Mary's life, whether brother, husband, or adviser, fancies himself as the one who should truly be in charge.

Saoirse Ronan is at that age where the people casting a movie can convince themselves that she's believable as a teenager on-screen, but if her casting is meant to accentuate Mary's youth, it doesn't quite work that way. Her Mary is so ferocious in her dealings with the older men who surround her and authoritative in general that the moments meant to emphasize just how little practical experience she has in certain areas work best in retrospect, when the audience is replaying the film in their heads and realizing that her confidence in those scenes is not truly earned. It's insidiously clever work by Ronan and director Josie Rourke to bury the ingenue material despite the fact that the film is, on the whole, very sympathetic to Mary; she comes off as a combination of abrasive, charming, enlightened and entitled that not only gives her personality those human contradictions but allows her to have a foot in both modern times and her own present.

Of course, one might argue that there's less distance between these eras than we sometimes like to think. Rourke and her crew do not push modernity into the setting quite so much as some filmmakers might, but they make the world that Mary and Elizabeth live in seem a bit more familiar than has traditionally been the case with historical films - people of color are not erased in the way that they often have been, for instance, and the cutaways to John Knox (David Tennant) are interesting in how they don't necessarily come back around directly to show the results of his rabble-rousing causing direct harm: He's the cable news and talk radio of his time, an anti-Catholic force for division whose accusations seem to have much more force than Mary's actual actions in support of religious freedom.

Though Rourke and screenwriter Beau Willimon are well aware that they can't shade things too close to the twenty-first century, they mostly avoid giving too much focus on the specifically sixteenth-century parts of the story, with backstory on claims on the throne tending to be referenced in the most general of terms and military conflict handled quickly and mostly offscreen. The filmmakers do revel in the period elements visually, though often with purpose: Mary and Elizabeth tend to be dressed in bright colors with the schemers around them plain, and Scotland itself has a corresponding rough beauty compared to the more glamorous London; one can see why Mary is trying to move up. The film doesn't treat Scotland with disdain, though it does make a point of sometimes having both queens' people sometimes treated as an abstract concern despite their apparently-sincere use of the royal "we".

Both queens, as it happens, are quite fascinating, with Margot Robbie's Elizabeth maybe not quite stealing this film but certainly making one curious about what the same story told from her perspective would look like. Robbie and the filmmakers make Elizabeth represent a sort of resignation in comparison to Mary's youthful ambition and rage at being stymied, with the actress bringing great charisma to the part but also just the right amount of insincerity when she defends her pragmatism. She's crucial in the one (invented) scene where she and Ronan get to play against each other, with Elizabeth's experience and maturity bringing Mary's weaknesses into sharper focus, even as the design and makeup crew are also showing that by not following her passions and instincts as Mary does, Elizabeth sees herself twisting into something almost inhuman.

It's a fascinating, striking way to put a cap on the story even as it makes the audience acutely aware that the film is skipping over some history and probably giving Mary the most favorable read it can on others. That's fine, though - this film's goals are clearly to connect the present to the past, showing how women had to step lightly around male egos even when they were two of the most powerful people in the world, making the argument that while Elizabeths may get things done now, Marys will eventually leave a potentially greater legacy.

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