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Mary Queen of Scots review - historically inaccurate and overly sentimental

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Verdict: Not for anyone who would be bothered by historical inaccuracies 

Directed by Josie Rourke in her film directorial debut, Mary Queen of Scots follows the life of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland (Saoirse Ronan) and her cousin Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie) as they fight for ownership of the English throne.

It’s a story as well known and as ingrained in British history as Henry VIII and his wives – so why take such a classic tale and go against everything we learnt at school?

The film begins with Mary being executed (this isn’t really a spoiler - it really happened over 400 years ago) and then flashes back 25 years to when she first arrives back on the shores of Scotland as a young woman. 

Photo credit: Universal Pictures

She is around 18 at this point, and though she ages throughout the film there is no effort made to make Ronan look any older. In the execution scene, Mary is supposed to be 44 and has been imprisoned for several years, yet she appears with an immaculate complexion, not a grey hair or wrinkle in sight.

The worst mistake in Mary Queen of Scots is the portrayal of Elizabeth I. Throughout history she is known to be totally formidable. A fearless leader, and one of the best queens this country has ever known – so why does Robbie’s Elizabeth behave like a snivelling wreck?

This is just the beginning of a whole host of inaccuracies. The climax of the film shows the two monarchs finally meeting face to face (this never happened) in a barn full of curtains where they both flounce around, slowing pulling back the curtains in a rather bizarrely executed way of building tension.

When they do finally stop running around and talk, Elizabeth bleats on about her jealousy of how beautiful and amazing Mary is, which just seems weird coming from Robbie, who despite being made to look ‘ugly’ by the makeup team, really just looks like Margot Robbie in a bad wig.

Photo credit: Universal Pictures

It’s surprising watching it that this film had a female director since it seemed so vehemently to enforce the male gaze, showing that despite these two women being strong(ish) and capable – they would never be as capable as men. There are also two rape scenes, something that is completely unnecessary – gratuitous sexual violence on the screen should have stopped with Game of Thrones.  

Despite all of this, Mary Queen of Scots is not a terrible film. Aesthetically it’s breathtakingly beautiful, filmed against a backdrop of the Scottish countryside. Saoirse Ronan is fantastic as Mary, commanding the screen in every scene she’s in. She’s particularly enigmatic in the early parts of the film, where she is confronting John Knox (David Tennant) in a tense scene, which acts as the catalyst for the events later in the film.

The supporting cast is fantastic. Gemma Chan (Crazy Rich Asians) is sensational as Elizabeth Hardwick, Elizabeth I's right-hand woman. Despite the dismal script leaving her with around five words to say in total, Chan has the ability to own the screen with just a look. Jack Lowden (Dunkirk, War & Peace) as Mary's husband Lord Darnley is equally great, he plays the egotistical, drunk misogynist with ease - managing the difficult feat of playing a character so vile but making him somewhat likeable.

All in all, with its stellar supporting cast and Academy Award-nominated leading ladies, Mary Queen of Scots should have been incredible. It'll probably still get an Oscar nom, as Hollywood loves a British period drama - but whether it deserves to be nominated is another question entirely. 

Mary Queen of Scots is out in cinemas on 18th January 2019. 

Lead image credit: Universal Pictures




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