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Mary Queen of Scots – Review

Oliver Maynard is thrilled by Josie Rourke's film debut, Mary Queen of Scots


Some of the posters for Mary Queen of Scots loftily proclaim that it is ‘the perfect story for our times.’ Whilst such a magnanimous statement would backfire embarrassingly on a lesser film, Josie Rourke’s breathtaking historical drama confidently assures its audiences that it isn’t here to mess around. It sets out to deliver on that bold statement and effortlessly succeeds. Although its marketing has been subject to criticism (angered tweets from cinephiles bemoaning its lacklustre trailer or posters with ‘Yas Queen’ graffitied on them have become commonplace), that shouldn’t sway film goers from missing out on an exquisite piece of storytelling.

The film begins as it ends, with a candle being snuffed out and an execution.  From this bleak vision of what is to come, Beau Willimon and John Guy’s screenplay retraces its steps to when Mary (played by a fiery Saoirse Ronan) arrives at her homeland, an event which begins a tale of rivalry, passion, love and loss. With Margot Robbie’s Elizabeth I sitting on the throne (a role which could easily stray into Blackadder territory) without a child, Mary’s arrival sets off dynastic alarm bells ringing.

‘Although its marketing has been subject to criticism, that shouldn’t sway film goers from missing out on an exquisite piece of storytelling’

It’s an ambitious and sweeping story which crams more period drama sensation into its running time than an entire season of Downton Abbey. Comparisons to other historical films will surely be drawn, but for me the best match is Netflix’s The Crown series. Both balance the political and the personal with grace; both are bolstered by stunning central performances; both have lavish set design and dreamy scores; but perhaps most importantly both make you ignore any historical liberties taken and scoop you in their hypnotic tension.

This is a script with rich subtext, which many reviews seem to miss entirely. It’s a story about the hardship of female power, and how men will always try to undermine women if they can get at that power. Mary and Elizabeth are women who should be able to do whatever they want, but due to their testosterone heavy courts, are manipulated, abused and betrayed. There’s a dash of Brexit, with ideas of dividing nations and creating needless strife for the sake of pride running throughout, but these notions are never laboured. There’s a hint of fake news in there too, as David Tennant’s growling and deliciously hateful John Knox spits out anti-monarchical rhetoric. He embodies the fears and prejudices of the nation, as he dubs Mary a “murderous harlet.” Mary Queen of Scots has plenty of meaty ideas lurking under the surface if you want to delve into them, but still work on a surface level of sheer cinematic entertainment.

‘Mary Queen of Scots has plenty of meaty ideas lurking under the surface if you want to delve into them, but still work on a surface level of sheer cinematic entertainment’

And it truly is a cinematic beast. From its gorgeous highland vistas to its artisanal colour palette, the film takes an electric visual direction, with expert lighting and some cleverly crafted scenes to match. The bloody excess, like a new born baby smattered between Mary’s thighs, strikes a perfectly judged contrast with Elizabeth’s similarly placed blood-red paper crafts – a marker of the difference in their abilities of creation. As Mary creates life, Elizabeth can only perfect her artwork, rendering herself powerless by the standards of her time. This is paired beautifully by an emotional and powerful score by Max Richter, which is regal and bombastic. It’s an adaptable score which feels not only like a call to arms but an embodiment of the spirit and brilliance of its central female figures.

This is bolstered by a diverse cast with messages of acceptance, particularly shown towards Mary’s confidant David Rizzio, portrayed by Ismael Cruz Cordova. David is at one point seen dressed in one of the maid’s dresses and asks: “Is it a sin that I feel more of a sister to you than a brother?”, to which Mary responds lovingly: “Be whoever you wish with us. You make for a lovely sister.” Such lines may have felt anachronistic and jarring, but Mary Queen of Scots’ inclusion of them indicate not only its quality, but its good heart and contemporary edge – which I hope will set it apart from other period dramas and make this a film to remember. If not, it remains a stunning debut from Rourke, whose name I’ll be watching in future…

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