Released on December 21st, Mary Queen of Scots chronicles the 16th-century conflict between Mary Stuart and Queen Elizabeth I. The film opens with a brief backstory: Mary Stuart was born to the Scottish King James V but spent most of her childhood in France and married a French nobleman at fifteen. Widowed by the age of eighteen, Mary returned to Scotland to claim her throne. At that time, her first cousin once removed, Queen Elizabeth I, reigned over England and Ireland.
The film features a talented cast: three-time Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan portrays Mary, Oscar nominee Margot Robbie plays Elizabeth, and Doctor Who star David Tennant is almost unrecognizable as Protestant cleric John Knox.
Unfortunately, director Josie Rourke, who previously only directed theater, doesn’t give her capable actors the best material. Viewers who are familiar with the history behind the story will be dissatisfied, as will viewers who know nothing about Mary or Elizabeth. There is no way to win.
As do many period dramas, Rourke’s adaptation takes significant liberties with the facts. Considering she spent nearly her entire childhood in France, Mary would not have returned to Scotland with such a distinct Scottish accent (though Ronan’s Scottish accent is spot-on). The climax of the film – a scene in which Mary and Elizabeth meet in person – never occurred in reality. History buffs who are bothered by historical inaccuracies should stay away from this film.
On the other hand, viewers who don’t know much about this era will be confused, since many key details are glossed over. Mary was a Catholic and Elizabeth was a Protestant; the intense division between Catholics and Protestants at that time was a significant reason people despised one queen or the other. While Mary was indeed intent on taking Elizabeth’s throne and claiming England for herself, Rourke portrays this conflict as a feud between celebrities rather than the nuanced religious and political conflict it was.
It’s not surprising that the film is mainly about Mary given the title, but as a consequence, Elizabeth’s side to the story is underdeveloped. Elizabeth’s refusal to wed isn’t well-explained, and she vacillates between support for and distrust of Mary without clear reasoning. Seeing Elizabeth’s side more fully would have in turn provided a deeper understanding of Mary and the conflict between the two queens.
That’s not to say that the film has no redeeming qualities. Thanks to Rourke’s theater background, the costumes, makeup, and sets are beautiful. A prosthetic nose and realistic-looking smallpox make Margot Robbie look much like Elizabeth.
The strong female friendships are also a welcome surprise. Mary’s relationship with her ladies-in-waiting is reminiscent of many modern-day female friendships; the young women giggle and gossip and ask for advice on men.
But aside from this small portrait of sisterhood, one viewer commented that the film has “no redeemable characters.” While political deceit is to be expected, the characters simply aren’t decent people. Mary’s second husband, Lord Darnley – who was also her first cousin, which the film does not mention – is a drunkard who hits Mary and displays little respect for her. He betrays his wife on two significant occasions, making him perhaps an even scarier rival than Elizabeth is.
All in all, if political soap operas are your cup of tea, then Mary Queen of Scots is a worthwhile film to see. There’s plenty of violence and sex to warrant the movie’s R rating, and the actors do an excellent job with the material they’re given. But if you’re looking for a compelling, enlightening historical drama, stick to the History channel, or wait until the film is released on streaming services.