Forget everything you know about Mary Queen of Scots. That was easy, right? One of the more overlooked figures of British History gets her story told to a modern audience, and honestly, it wasn’t what I was expecting. First thing’s first: this film is beautiful. Most of the shots that perhaps in the hands of other directors might have been simply consequential were deliberately framed to create fine art on screen, with well thought out angles enhancing the natural beauty of their surroundings or to add claustrophobia in a tense scene. The costumes were grandiose and the colours in both the costumes and the props were striking, and all together prove to make ‘Mary Queen of Scots’ an outstanding directorial debut by Josie Rourke.
But you don’t have to be a history buff to enjoy the film, it’s far more than just politics and dreary Scottish castles. While it isn’t exactly ‘Game of Thrones’ there's more than enough to keep even a casual viewer entertained. Twenty years of Tudor and Stewart drama are packed into two hours: three marriages, rumoured affairs, actual affairs, a civil war, a murder plot and two executions. However, with this sheer amount of drama in mind, it’s disappointing to think that the film’s first twenty minutes are so dull. In all films, you must leave time for the establishment of characters and story, but this was excessive (oh my God, we get it, you want heirs to rule both Scotland and England, get to the intrigue and murder!). But having masterfully gotten through that initial period of dullness, I was pleasantly surprised by the rest of the film.
The film is definitely a sentimental one, focussing on the creation of moments of heightened emotion and tension with a message for all time, not just five hundred years ago. This is also displayed in the sympathetic nature of our two protagonists: they are both gentile and are shown as somewhat kind while Elizabeth is a character that deserves our pity. What’s more, the two women appear towards the end of the film to want what’s best for each other. This was not true for the real Mary and Elizabeth who never actually met, but it’s clear that the writers have sacrificed some historical accuracy for something that works better for the film, so from a viewer standpoint this is a plus. The characterisation of the two women is also interesting because despite all her redeeming qualities, Mary also sometimes comes across in a negative light meaning we never really see her as purely good or bad which means we get a three-dimensional female character!
Despite both women’s failings, they’re never overly or unnecessarily emotional, something that can’t be said for the men that surround them who spend much of the film shouting and crying and moping. All these genuinely brilliant moments of the film are helped hugely by the capable performances by both Margot Robbie and Saoirse Ronan not to mention the rest of the cast, with even apparently minor characters being portrayed brilliantly by Britain’s best (David Tennant, Martin Compston and James McArdle). Sadly the ending’s power is lessened by the fact that the film fell prey to a common trope in historical drama: jump cutting over several years with title cards mad with a very Horrible-Histories'esque font. However the film is a great watch and its message is simple: we just can't put men in charge, they're far too emotional.