Mary Queen of Scots review: ‘artistic licence breathes life into history’

Rourke brings a fresh take on the fraught relationship between two women ruling in a man’s world.

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Mary Queen of Scots sits in a chair and stairs into the middle distance, looking poised and wearing a headdress.
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Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots are undoubtedly two of British history’s most well-known female figures, their rivalry forming the focus of many films and novels. In her directorial feature debut, Josie Rourke brings a fresh take on this fraught relationship between two women ruling in a man’s world. The film begins as Mary (Saoirse Ronan) arrives in Scotland after the death of her husband, the French Dauphin, and takes us through her difficult time at Scotland’s helm.

Rourke takes a well-known motto of the Scots Queen to poignantly open and close the film. “In the end is my beginning” was the famous saying Mary had embroidered onto her cloth of estate during her years of English captivity, and the film also ends as it began, in 1587, with Mary’s imminent execution after being implicated in a plot against Elizabeth’s (Margot Robbie) life. Through this creative choice, Rourke cleverly embeds the tragedy of Mary’s life into the film’s very structure.

A charge of historical inaccuracy is typically laid against any historical drama, and Mary Queen of Scots is no exception. But considering that historians still heavily debate the truth of Mary’s story, Rourke can easily be excused for bringing a creative twist to elements of Mary’s life still shrouded in mystery. Well-known facts are so smoothly blended in with acts of artistic license that it is difficult to tell one from the other unless viewers are familiar with the minute details of Mary’s life. The most interesting divergence from pure historical fact is the presentation of a love triangle between Mary, Darnley (Jack Lowden) and the Queen’s secretary David Rizzio (Ismael Cruz Cordova), as there is a lack of conclusive evidence that the two men had a sexual relationship. Rizzio’s gruesome murder hence takes on deeper meaning in the film, with Darnley destroying the physical manifestation of his sexuality.

The film will no doubt interest history buffs as it provides its own answers to the big questions circulating Mary’s life – whether she had a hand in the murder of her second husband Henry, Lord Darnley, and the circumstances of her subsequent marriage to Lord Bothwell (Martin Compston). Some may be disappointed that important moments in Mary’s life are skipped over, such as her forced abdication and lengthy imprisonment, but for the sake of running time these omissions are unfortunately necessary.

Historiography centred on Mary Queen of Scots has fluctuated between portraying her as a victim or a perpetuator. Rourke gives us a Mary capable of fitting into both categories, and for this reason may come close to the true historical Mary. Ronan is an excellent choice for the role of Mary, as she combines the Queen’s fierce nature and independence with her increasing desperation. She is betrayed both by the men in her life and ultimately the woman who should understand her the most.

David Tennant gives a spot-on performance as Protestant preacher John Knox. Famous for being misogynistic even in an era that was hardly noted for its gender equality, Knox’s antagonism towards Mary translates well onscreen. His harangues against Mary, calling her a ‘strumpet’, and his commentary on the evil of allowing women to rule contributes to Rourke’s overall depiction of the difficulties faced by these two women in establishing their authority. Yet Rourke also counteracts this ever-present misogyny in the film’s most powerful scene, one that sees Elizabeth swoop down a palace corridor as a sea of black clad male courtiers fall to one knee as she passes.

The central irritant of the film was the decision to dramatically age Elizabeth beyond her years, as Robbie’s Elizabeth is a lot more disconcerting to look at compared to previous depictions. The fictional meeting depicted in the film between the two queens took place in 1568 when Elizabeth was only 35 years old. Though Rourke’s intention was no doubt to reveal Elizabeth’s vulnerability behind the mask of stoicism that she must present to her subjects to survive, the imagery is too blunt. This endurance is more effectively communicated through scenes of Elizabeth consuming herself in her art. The film’s recent Oscar nomination for Best Consume Design is, however, well deserved, as no expense is spared in crafting the Virgin Queen’s lavish wardrobe.

The film’s most interesting, yet factually inaccurate scene, comes with the meeting between Elizabeth and Mary after the latter flees to England seeking her cousin’s help. It is an emotional moment that culminates years of rivalry and competition, and although there is no evidence to point to it ever having occurred, the film would lack an emotional pay-off without its inclusion. Its execution was partially flawed, as the tension building until the moment when Mary finally pulls aside a sheet to reveal Elizabeth was slightly overdone. It felt as if the setting was being milked a little too much for all of its dramatic potential.

Any inaccuracies aside, Mary Queen of Scots is a brilliantly directed and passionate take on one of history’s most famous ‘sisterly’ relationships, and brings our attention back to two women whose stories are always worth telling in new ways.

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