MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS
Director: Josie Rourke
Screenwriter: Beau Willimon, based on the book Queen Of Scots: The True Life Of Mary Stuart by John Guy.
Ismael Cruz Córdova
Simon Russell Beale
Runtime: 124 mins.
Australian release date: 17 January 2019
Previewed at: Event Cinemas, George Street, Sydney, on 14 January 2019.
Elizabeth I, Queen of England from 1533 to 1603, has been portrayed on the big and small screen by everyone from Sarah Bernhardt, Flora Robson, Florence Eldridge, Bette Davis, Agnes Moorehead, Irene Worth, Catherine Lacey, Glenda Jackson, Jean Simmons and Cate Blanchett to, would you believe, Quentin Crisp, and now it’s Margot Robbie’s turn to don the red wig and pancake makeup. The list of those who’ve taken on the role of Mary Queen of Scots is not as extensive but it does include some notable portrayals, not least those by Vanessa Redgrave and Katharine Hepburn, and now they’re joined by Saoirse Ronan in a new film by Donmar Warehouse theatre director Josie Rourke.
Beginning in 1587, as Mary Stuart is about to be executed, the film looks back at the extraordinary life of the young Queen of Scotland and her complicated relationship with her cousin, Elizabeth I. By marriage, Mary became Queen of France at 16 but was widowed at 18, at which point she returned to her native Scotland to reclaim her throne. Scotland, however, had fallen under the rule of Elizabeth I so her claim causes consternation both north and south of the English border. Thus began a series of missives between the two ‘sisters’ as they attempted to negotiate a settlement and prevent war, letters that were remarkably frank and almost loving and showed that they regarded each other with a mixture of fear and admiration. Rulers in almost totally male courts, the two females take differing approaches to dealing with the treacherous men who surround them, men who offer advice and counsel but who always chafe at the idea that a woman is seated on the throne. Mary strives to marry and fall pregnant, so producing an heir to the crowns of both England and Scotland, while Elizabeth recognises that if she marries, her husband will immediately attempt to wrest power from her and she remains the ‘Virgin Queen’. But the dirty dealings and intrigues continue to whirl around them, at great cost to both.
Beau Willimon’s screenplay evokes memories of his TV series House Of Cards, with all the subterfuge, sex and scheming that takes place, but I wouldn’t want to use it as a reference work on British history. It depicts, for example, a secret meeting between the two Queens somewhere in the north of England but we know that such a summit never took place; which is not to say that it doesn’t add spice to the film (and it’s beautifully rendered). Mary Queen of Scots looks spectacular: Alexandra Byrne’s costumes are a treat and the hair and makeup by Jenny Shircore, stunning - both are well deserving of their BAFTA nominations. Max Richter’s music is beautiful, too; an often present but never unwelcome presence, quietly underscoring the action. The film is studded by a vast array of contemporary British acting talent from both stage and screen, too many to single out in this short review but many of whom you’ll recognise, even if their appearance is sometimes fleeting. One non-English thespian worthy of mention is the Puerto Rican actor Ismael Cruz Córdova, who plays the Queen’s confidante David Rizzio, an out gay man who unfortunately meets a grisly end. He’s terrific as another kind of queen. Robbie and Ronan are both excellent, it almost goes without saying, and Robbie has also garnered a well-earned BAFTA nomination.
Overall, though, Mary Queen of Scots is a bit flat. It looks great but is disappointing. Of the two period films about English Queens gracing our screens right now, regrettably it pales into insignificance beside Yorgos Lanthimos’s story about Queen Anne, The Favourite.