Review: Mary Queen of Scots

13 March 2019

What is the better way to rule as a woman? That is the question Mary Queen of Scots wishes to answer.

In the latest biopic of Mary Stuart’s life, we follow the recently-widowed Mary as she returns to Scotland to reclaim her throne, with bold ambitions to unite Scotland and England. It was thrilling to see Saoirse Ronan delicately balancing Mary’s youth with her tenacity. She is vulnerable and childish, but has enough self-awareness to demand the respect of her court. As she looks for a way to secure her crown, Mary, with persuasion from Queen Elizabeth (Margot Robbie) and her council, marries Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden). They produce an heir to the throne, which threatens Elizabeth’s place as Queen of England. With this role, Ronan further cemented her place as one of Hollywood’s notable young actors. However, the script and direction is plain and unexciting despite Mary’s story being ripe with drama and suspense, leaving the film a forgettable middlebrow.

Elizabeth on the other hand, is calculating and stern. She understands her place in the world and fought hard to keep it. While Mary chose the path of motherhood, Elizabeth decided to sacrifice her femininity, becoming “more man than woman” in order to gain the respect of her court. Throughout the film, she becomes increasingly clown-like, caking on extra layers of ash-white makeup and donning on a massive red wig to hide her aged, scarred face. She struggles with her feelings towards Mary, wondering at times if the animosity between them was worth it or if they would have benefitted as allies. Robbie plays the role with an acute sensitivity towards her character’s inner struggles. She is ruthless and terrifying on the outside; but under the distracting hair and makeup is a woman who questions whether she made the right decisions.

Rourke’s adaptation is not visually spectacular, the scenic English countryside and Scottish Highlands aren’t used to their full potential, relegated to be used as setting cues rather than adding to the cinematography. The editing is minimal and the film overall lacks excitement despite being ripe with drama. The drastic change in tone when the two queens finally meet felt awkward and forced. Although the whole film was staged around the meet-up, yet, it felt out of place with the entire film. For five minutes, Mary Queen of Scots abandons its historical drama corset for an arthouse dress. The intensity of the dialogue and the risk both queens took for the meet up was overshadowed by the curtains that were flowing in the wind as they played hide and seek with each other. They argue over solutions to Mary’s poor choices. Elizabeth expresses her jealousy towards her cousin in a heartbreaking performance by Robbie. The meeting ends with Elizabeth promising Mary safety in England and the film returns to its stoic, bland self.

The film tries really hard to make Mary a heroine of some sorts, or at least someone audiences would root for. She does not discriminate against her jester’s sexuality and has throwaway lines that are obvious, desperate attempts to make the audience cheer for her. Ultimately, it is hard to ignore the fact that one of the main reasons for her downfall is her inability to make good choices. Despite warning her ladies that they should be wary of men, she places too much faith in the council of her court, who were plotting against her.

Is there ‘correct’ way to rule as a woman? Mary Queen of Scots says no. If you choose to have a baby, your people and those you trust most might abandon you. Choose to forfeit your femininity and risk losing your identity. Either way, women in power are at a loss. The film doesn’t provide us with fresh insight into how to manage a room full of men as a woman, neither does it give a solution to managing sexism in the workplace. Instead, it rehashes old tropes of the virgin and the whore with an excruciating number of horse-riding scenes, making it an unmemorable middlebrow film.

Mary Queen of Scots is in cinemas now. 

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