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Movie Review | Mary Queen of Scots

Mary (Saoirse Ronan) leads her men in Mary Queen of Scots

Movie summary: In 1561, Mary, Catholic Queen of Scotland, returns to home country from France following her husband's death to take up her throne. In neighbouring England, her cousin, Elizabeth is Protestant Queen of England — unmarried, childless, and threatened by Mary's potential claim to her throne. (Wikipedia)

Mary Queen of Scots is a lot like Red Sparrow in that it has multiple serious flaws that are very noticeable, but is still a movie that I enjoyed a lot. Unlike the Jennifer Lawrence title, which scratched an itch for a female spy film, this movie excels thanks to the fantastic performances from its two female leads.

I will praise them more later, but this is just a warning that this review is another where I'm going to have a list of complaints, but if I don't mention something then you can take that as meaning I either had no problems with it or simply just liked it. I think it's more valuable to know what might put you off, rather than to ignore problems to simply focus on the positives.

That's not a hard and fast rule I abide by as there are plenty of stories across multiple forms of media that I love, but can understand why other people might not. In those instances, I would focus on the good because I thought they made the bad insignificant. That certainly isn't the case here. which is why I think looking at this movie's issues is worthy of all these words.

First off is something that the film doesn't really hide - in fact, featuring a quote in the advertising that suggests this is the ideal film for our times. On one hand, to view it from a positive perspective, this is true - a female led film starring two of the best actresses working in movies today who both put in outstanding performances deserving of all the praise being showered upon them.

On the other hand, it has the problem of being a historical film that lets its characters behave very much like twenty-first century Western liberals. It might well make Mary Queen of Scots more appetising to modern audiences, but if you have any inkling of how women have been treated throughout history - even royalty - then it does add a layer of inauthenticity to events.

Margot Robbie's Elizabeth escapes a lot of this treatment, although not entirely, but Saoirse Ronan's Mary really, really doesn't. She spends a lot of the time speaking and behaving in a way that would've seen her doomed a lot earlier than how things eventually unravel, despite her privileged position. The script isn't particularly subtle about trying to paint Mary as a radical feminist icon.

If this movie was a straight-up alternate history, then there wouldn't be any real issue with that portrayal of Mary. The problem is that when the film eventually has to depict her final fate, it just makes you wonder why it hadn't happened earlier? The movie never offers any answers either, other than that's how history books say she lived out the final part of her life and so she was safe until the required point in time.

Again, I don't want to blame Ronan for this, as she's a fiercely inspirational lead as Mary, making it very understandable why this version of her commanded so much respect from the men around her. It's the story, and the real events of history, that drag things down rather than the performance or the dialogue - a fair amount of which is in French, a strangely-accurate historical detail for this movie.

The second biggest issue that I think Mary Queen of Scots has is that it clearly didn't have as much of a budget as the subject matter deserved. Like Colette, this feels very much like a TV-level story instead of something that should be seen on a big screen. A couple of locations look impressive, and the costuming, make-up and hair-styling are all top-notch, but that's where the visual excellence ends.

Elizabeth (Margot Robbie) before the pox in Mary Queen of Scots

The absolute nadir is a 'battle' scene that would've embarrassed even the first season of Game of Thrones. First off, from what I can tell, it's an event that didn't actually happen - although this would be a perfectly acceptable break from historical reality if executed to a high enough standard while in service to advancing the story.

The problem is that latter part doesn't happen. The scene does nothing to hide how few people are actually involved in this 'battle', nor to disguise the fact that some of the extras involved look like they're trying to hug their opponents instead of grappling with them. It's a badly-done scene that briefly threatened to derail the movie for me.

I think the thing that really stinks about this scene is that it really feels like a sequence that was filmed to 'spice up' the trailers. Ronan does look fantastic in the armour she wears, but never comes close to having to fight in it. If you thought this was a movie about a warrior Queen, then you've got another think coming - even if Ronan as said battling royal would be a movie I'd love to see.

If you can overlook these things, then there is a lot to enjoy here and, as I said, I did enjoy the film a lot because Ronan and Robbie are so damned good that it's just about impossible to actually lose interest in events on-screen. They really do make a mockery of those who think women can't lead films when the two of them are the beating hearts of everything that works here.

That's not to say the supporting cast isn't good - David Tennant as John Knox and Guy Pearce as William Cecil are both great despite putting in contrasting performances in terms of tone, with the former all blood, thunder and the wrath of God while the latter is a more sly and Machiavellian operator.

Adrian Lester is also very good as Lord Randolph, the ambassador being thanklessly batted back and forth between the two Queens, while I would've liked to have seen more of Gemma Chan's Bess - she's very prominently placed and it did feel to me like there scenes or possibly even an entire subplot cut there and I'd be very interested to know what else we might've seen.

When focusing on the characters and their relationships with each other, Mary Queen of Scots is an excellent piece of alternate history that is extremely good fun to watch. As long as you go into this movie expecting no more than that, I think most people will feel that most people will like what they see - just don't plan on seeing some grand and epic historical drama, as that isn't this film.

Mary Queen of Scots is an enjoyable movie when it allows its two leads to dominate the screen, but the historical revisionism feels a little too forced to take seriously. It doesn't feel like the movie had much of a budget either, but it certainly makes the most of what it's got.


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