There’s scheming afoot in Josie Rourke’s debut feature film, Mary Queen of Scots, which sees Saoirse Ronan’s Mary Stuart return from France to face off against the Protestant church and reigning Queen of England, Elizabeth 1st (Margot Robbie). Making a bold transition from the medium of drama to cinema, Rourke shows herself to be a talented narrative film-maker in her revival of a classic story tasked with handling major contemporary conflicts. This is well realised in parts, but despite a refreshingly clear structure, some outstanding acting and believable characterisation, what’s left is a film which attempts to unpack a lot yet feels unbalanced under the weight of its leading ladies.
When Mary arrives in Scotland, she seeks refuge with her half-brother (a sullen James McArdle) at Holyrood Palace. Exotic and brazen, her presence there itself is a complete defiance of Britain’s newfound Protestantism. A superbly cast and almost unrecognisable (to be expected, underneath all that facial hair) David Tennant is John Knox, figurehead of a civil rebellion which seeks to oust Mary from her throne the moment she sits in it. Stage-like are the cavernous chambers and grand halls where bloodline and inheritance are debated in hushed tones; a gripping, uneasy atmosphere of imprisonment seems to tighten closer around Mary, no matter how safe she deems herself to be.
Saoirse Ronan is sublime as the Scottish monarch, to the surprise of absolutely no-one. It’s hard to believe that only a year ago she was the youthful, naive face of Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird; at 24 years old, she has an astoundingly diverse track record, the consistent factor being that she’s always a delight to watch. Here, she flourishes in a role which massively enables her emotional range to take flight. As Mary, she’s a calculated picture of strength and beauty, brave and seemingly unafraid of the revolt waiting at her door. There is evident poeticism in the writing of the line “I will be the woman she is not. I will produce an heir unlike her barren self”, but it’s her delivery which makes its scene a true standout. There may be criticisms of its historical inaccuracy but Ronan pulls off a mostly-decent regal Scottish voice – her French is a little more unbalanced but there’s not enough use of this throughout the film to make any real negative impact.
Robbie alternatively draws the short straw when it comes to the material she’s given to work with. In scenes of frustratingly limited dialogue, there are flickers of brilliance, but this is left sorely underdeveloped. Her character is wiser and wearier than Mary, yet the little time spent with her doesn’t do much to showcase her cunning. More prominent is her tragedy, most visible as Elizabeth compares herself to her cousin in an expertly designed, high-stakes scene. Her solemn condemnation that Mary’s “gifts will be her downfall” demonstrate this: these are two women who would have been friends had external forces not been so intent on pitting them against one another. A fine display of acting aside, this arguably the only moment of emotional weight Margot Robbie carries in the film. Events in later acts see her come to life a little more, but the mere sight of a steely-faced Elizabeth going horseback to meet her foe in the flesh is enough to hammer home how under-utilised she really is in her part.
It’s a good thing, then, that the supporting cast (Guy Pearce shines as a shrewd William Cecil) are so collectively strong. True for both Mary and Elizabeth is the threat presented by council and company. Women are, throughout, portrayed to be more progressive, forgiving, emotionally empathetic. To be feared are the men, aggressive, fearful and resultantly, dangerous. Screenwriter Beau Willimon’s efforts to paint a portrait of corruption and deceit are one of the film’s most successful elements – there’s deception and misogyny to contend with both sides of the border and some truly exceptional lines of dialogue really lay these themes bare. “I am more man than woman now, the throne has made me so”, Robbie solemnly proclaims; a more tragic line in the film is not spoken, nor a more important one.
That’s the real key factor which separates Josie Rourke’s adaptation from a BBC costume-drama mini-series; its every component exudes a sleek, stern professionalism. John Mathieson’s gorgeous landscape cinematography elevates Mary and her betrothed Lord Darnley into beautiful hillsides and familiarly grey Scottish skies. A suitable accompaniment is the bombastic, heartfelt score composed by Max Richter, whose creative reign is given room to explode. If there are issues with the balance of the film, there is consistency in this at least – Mary Queen of Scots never feels silly. In fact, it has well-earned its demands to be taken seriously and while not unconventional, it showcases a fascinating historical figure in a modern light.
Mary Queen of Scots is screening at Glasgow Film Theatre from the 22nd-31st January. Anyone aged between 15 and 25 can get a free card from GFT that entitles them to £5.50 tickets to any standard screening.
By Maisie McGregor