Mary Queen of Scots

Ronan and Robbie are knockout, but their bold, sensitive performances as somewhat hindered by structural and pacing issues

Film Review by Caitlin Quinlan | 14 Jan 2019
  • Mary Queen of Scots
Film title: Mary Queen of Scots
Director: Josie Rourke
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Margot Robbie, Jack Lowden, Joe Alwyn, David Tennant, Guy Pearce
Release date: 18 Jan
Certificate: 15

Theatre director Josie Rourke tackles her first cinematic feature with Mary Queen of Scots, an expansive and ambitious retelling of the political and religious rivalry that developed between Mary Stuart (Ronan) and her cousin Queen Elizabeth I (Robbie) in the late 1500s. The film delivers a gutsy portrayal of defiant yet vulnerable women intent on maintaining their rule over the whims of their male (ill-)advisors.

Rourke brings an elegance to small moments, and artistic touches throughout tie the cousins together in interesting if not always subtle parallels. There's an ongoing concern with the similarities and differences between the two queens – both undeniably and publicly powerful and quick-thinking, but distanced by insecurities and choices made in their personal lives. While Mary lies in bloodied sheets after childbirth, Elizabeth sits wide-legged among streams of red paper flowers, her only substitute for Mary’s experience of motherhood. As Elizabeth gazes upon a portrait of fair Mary, a cruel distortion of her own face in a mirror visualises her internal anxieties and envy.

Toying with its historical inaccuracies and artistic license, the film imagines a meeting between Mary and Elizabeth that historians would dispute. Regardless, this scene is the film’s finest creative moment and grants some much needed time to both Ronan and Robbie, allowing them space to reach the depths of their characters. Elsewhere the film too often jumps between events and places instead of finding a steadier pace to tell this unwieldy story. Fitting a wealth of history into two hours is not easy, and Rourke seems uncertain over the film's commitment to telling Elizabeth’s story as much as Mary’s. These issues with structure and pacing hinder what is otherwise a valiant film that details the inadequacies of men throughout history and champions two great young actors in Ronan and Robbie, who both give equally bold and sensitive performances.

Released 18 Jan by Focus Features; certificate 15