Mary, Queen Of Scots ****
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Margot Robbie, Jack Lowden, Joe Alwyn, Guy Pearce, David Tennant, James McArdle Director: Josie Rourke Country: UK The story of Mary Stewart is one very familiar to UK audiences. The last large-scale film about the iconic Scottish queen was actually in 1971, starring Vanessa Redgrave, but this new film puts a genuinely different twist on the story due to the modern interpretation that actually, Mary’s husband was gay. There is plenty of evidence for this (albeit conspicuously absent from his Wikipedia page), but James Stewart (a.k.a. Lord Darnley) definitely had sexual encounters with men. Whether he was gay or bisexual in the modern sense of the word is another question – these definitions were not in existence until the Victorian era – but this new Queer take on a classic tale from history feels like opening the blinds on a dusty room only to finally see how beautiful it is.
Mary (Ronan) is widowed at age 19. Having grown up in France, she returns to Scotland where her half-brother (McArdle) has been ruling as regent. When she refuses to renounce her Catholicism and shows strength in taking the crown back from him, her nobles rise in revolt against her, led by the Protestant cleric John Knox (Tennant), her brother and funded by the English Queen, Elizabeth I (Robbie). When the revolt is put down, Mary is insistent that Elizabeth name her as heir to the English throne, seeing as her counterpart was stoically unmarried and without a child. In an attempt to placate her, she sends her own favourite Robert Dudley (Alwyn) across the border as a suitor, but is enraged when Mary chooses an English subject (with Scottish blood and a legitimate claim for the English throne), Lord Darnley (Lowden) instead. Mary declares herself more powerful than Elizabeth, saying that she will do what Elizabeth cannot in producing an heir, but suddenly it becomes a lot more complicated when she realises that her husband is gay.
Ronan is resplendent as the Scottish monarch. She is strong and powerful but avoids masculinising her to justify this strength. Mary is very clearly still a feminine woman, who enjoys gossiping with her ladies-in-waiting as much as being at the head of an army. This works brilliantly in contrast with Margot Robbie’s Elizabeth, who says that she is now “mostly man” because of the duties of the throne. Robbie’s is a very different Elizabeth than other incarnations we have seen on screen. Her frailty, obsession with her looks and obsession with maintaining a masculine presence against her male advisors casts her not as the ironclad monarch we know of auld, but instead someone clinging onto power for power’s sake and burying her head in the sand about her lack of an heir.
With both Ronan and Robbie receiving equal billing however, the anticipated involvement of the English Queen is somewhat deceptive. In reality, Robbie’s screen-time is pretty short, and while the two monarchs never actually met in person, the temptation to place the two in the same room together has obviously proved too great for the writer here. With an unusual hide and seek-esque scene in a laundry, where the pair duck and weave between pegged up bedsheets to get a glimpse of each other, this is clearly meant to be the film’s highlight and indeed, if the film had revolved around the relationship between the two, then that’s exactly what this would be. But this is not that film. Apart from the occasional scene in the English court, the focus is firmly on (an unusually diverse for the sixteenth century) Scotland. This is the story of how Mary found herself at the mercy of the English Queen, not the story of what happened when she got there.
In reality, this should probably have been two films, one before and one after the arrest. It glosses over long periods, skipping past significant moments to get to the drama. However, with its new slant on an old story, stunning cinematography and beautiful costume and makeup design (I mean, Elizabeth’s Queen Of Hearts-style makeup in the later scenes is something quite spectacular), this is a very enjoyable historical film. It’s a very 21st century story, focusing on strong women and their struggle to maintain their power, as well as the placement of Darnley’s sexuality front and centre. It’s certainly not perfect – Robbie borders on caricature at times – but it brings to new life (in vibrant technicolour) a story that has previously felt exhausted and overdone.
OUT NOW IN CINEMAS, RELEASED BY FOCUS FEATURES.