Director Josie Rourke confesses she views her feature-length debut as a “go big or go home” venture; the same could be said for her protagonist. We meet Mary (Saoirse Ronan) at age 19 as she returns to her native land to reclaim the Scottish crown and push for an even greater prize: succession to the English throne. Needless to say, her cousin Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie) is not best pleased at her arrival. From here, the film unfurls Mary’s difficult and ultimately deadly struggle to reconcile her passions with her ambitions, all the while navigating a political climate that is uneasy with a female monarch ruling the roost.
Rourke also speaks about her attempts to juggle historical veracity with on-screen entertainment. While the major events of Mary’s life are faithfully recounted, the actual source material itself leaves plenty of room for interpretation; to this day there remains much uncertainty surrounding key events such as the murder of David Rizzio, the death of her second husband Lord Darnley and the circumstances of her third marriage to the Earl of Bothwell. Rourke fully exploits those grey areas and paints them in the most lurid of colours, adding plenty of modern flourishes and testing the limits of her artistic license.
The gamble pays off in patches, but often comes off as a convoluted attempt to superimpose 21st century concerns onto 16th century society. Liberal attitudes towards homosexuality and the prevalence ethnic diversity are commonplace in the modern day (as of course they should be), but both seem a little out of place for the setting, while the framing of Mary and Elizabeth as two kindred spirits driven against each other by the deviousness of males is also jarring. Elizabeth in particular is painted in a much softer and weaker light than conventional history would have it, exemplified in the entirely fictional meeting of the two. Despite powerhouse performances from both Ronan and Robbie throughout the film, their imagined encounter fails to live up to the building anticipation which precedes it.
The rest of the cast are also on point. James McArdle shines as Mary’s half-brother whose loyalties are torn between his sister and what he believes is best for the country, while Adrian Lester and Guy Pearce are both competent without being remarkable as Elizabeth’s counsellors. Martin Compston gives a brooding performance in the under-explored character of Bothwell, whose sudden descent into an animalistic lust for power is unsatisfying, while David Tennant shows accomplished dead-eyed dourness as Protestant preacher John Knox. More might have been made of Knox and Mary’s real-life sparring, but instead Knox is reduced to the role of mere rabble-rouser, even if this does give rise to one of the film’s highlights as viewers are treated to the unlikely sight of Karen Dunbar screaming “Death to the hoor!” in a Hollywood blockbuster.
Of course, squeezing everything into a feature-length film is impossible, and too much criticism of omissions such as these would be unfair. However, the film does undoubtedly fall into the same trap which seems to beset many historical dramas; despite the turbulent and exciting series of events which took Mary from the French throne to the chopping block, things still move at a frustratingly sluggish pace. Whether that’s because the audience already knows the end, or because Rourke has to condense 25 years of history into two hours, the outcome is the same: a piece of cinema which has you glancing at your watch rather than ganting on a second act. Such a scenario shouldn’t be a foregone conclusion – as better-fisted films can testify – but it sadly all too often is and Mary Queen of Scots, for all its attempts at innovation and intrigue, does not buck the trend.