Paul Whitington: Mary Queen of Scots review - 'It might not be an entirely accurate history lesson, but it’s certainly an entertaining one'
On August 19th, 1561, a pale and slender young woman arrived on the shores of Leith, not far from Edinburgh. Mary Stuart was just 18, and had spent much of her life in the French court, but now returned to Scotland to claim the kingdom that was rightfully hers.
The country she sought to rule was riven by sectarian hatred, and the French-speaking, Catholic Mary was the devil incarnate to puritan zealots like John Knox, who wanted rid of her.
Even members of Mary’s own family began to scheme against her, and her return caused deep unease south of the border, where her possible claim on the English throne worried Queen Elizabeth’s slippery entourage. Underestimated by all parties, Mary turned out to be a formidable and determined young woman who fought her corner long and hard before the tide of history consumed her.
Up till now she's mainly been presented to us as a victim, a papist dupe, a wavering impediment to Queen Elizabeth’s glorious reign. But in Josie Rourke’s film, Mary takes centre stage.
This film marks another departure for Saoirse Ronan, playing an arch and demanding role at the central of a vast and lavish period movie. It would be easy for a young actor to get lost in the costumes and speechifying, but this is Saoirse, and her performance has a raw and ruthless focus that makes it entirely compelling.
When she returns to court, Mary must first face down her half brother James, Earl of Moray, who’s been ruling as regent and is not about to lightly relinquish the Scottish throne to a slip of a girl. He will be dismissively swept aside, but a more implacable enemy soon emerges in the form of John Knox, the tub-thumping, Rome-hating fundamentalist who’s played here with commendable sourness by David Tennant. His brimstone speeches will help turn the Scottish people against their ruler, and meanwhile Elizabeth’s principal advisor William Cecil (Guy Pearce) has become convinced that the menace of Mary must be contained.
His queen is without child, and when Mary marries a ne’er-do-well called Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden), alarm bells are raised in London as any male issue of that union would then have primary claim on the English throne. Cue no end of Machiavellian scheming, which is all grist to the mill of the film’s screenwriter Beau Willimon, creator of House of Cards.
Margot Robbie plays Elizabeth, a thankless task as the film seems determined to see things entirely from Mary’s point of view. Looking as dowdy as Ms. Robbie is capable of looking, Elizabeth fumes and dons a veil after contracting the pox, but thanks to the lopsided script never achieves three dimensions.
Her moment in the sun does come when Mr. Willimon engineers a dramatic meeting between the two monarchs that never actually happened. They meet in a rural laundry, and talk at odds through veils of drying sheets. It’s a clumsy metaphor for the forces that divide them, and even here Ms. Robbie wilts before the sheer force of Saoirse Ronan’s performance.
Her Mary positively quivers with pride and an overweening sense of entitlement, but time and again this hubris will prevent her from escaping the tightening Tudor knot. The film itself is sombre, sedately paced, beautifully photographed, if a little too stagey at times. But the script is good, there are some very nicely pitched dramatic scenes, and Alexandra Byrne’s costumes have a clean, couturish feel.
This might not be an entirely accurate history lesson, but it’s certainly an entertaining one.
(15A, 124mins, releasing January 18)
Also out this week:Beautiful Boy review: 'A moving film, bolstered by two fine performances'
Glass review: 'Hard to know how to describe it, but the phrase grandiose nonsense springs to mind'
Monsters and Men review: 'All the characters feel like adjuncts of an argument rather than actual people'