Scotland is cool again.
From the country’s political atmosphere, striving for independence; the sexiness of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander; followed by hot-Scot director, David Mackenzie’s, Outlaw King straightening the Braveheart story. Which brings us to Josie Rourke’s Mary Queen of Scots.
Such was Mary’s importance in British history, that many contemporary biographies can be dismissed as the propaganda of the victors of the time – most painting her as the pantomime villain. The basis of the film is the more recent and rigorously researched, Queen Of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stewart from author, John Guy. Director and theater veteran, Rourke, tapped House of Cards script writer, Beau Willimon, to help her bring the story to life on the big screen.
In 1559, Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan) becomes Queen of France at the age of 16. When her husband Francis II dies only two years later and she becomes a widow, she refuses to remarry. Instead, she decides to return to her homeland, take her place as Queen of Scots, and build her claim to the throne of England.
Elizabeth I of England (Margot Robbie), her cousin however, is not going to take this lying down. Mary’s primary weapon is her ability to bear an heir, whereas Elizabeth is barren, or maybe just rightfully suspicious of men. The plot thickens as Mary is Catholic and Elizabeth a Protestant product of her father, Henry VIII’s desire for remarriage. Religion being a larger divider than North/South differences at the time.
Mary is a feminist movie. It departs from the more traditionally accepted narrative – battle of cunning vixens – and portrays both Mary and Liz as embattled sister-heroines, striving to rise above the maelstrom of corrupt manhood. Evil men constantly trying to leverage the girls’ power positions for their own ends. John Knox (David Tennant, kitted out as a Scottish Rasputin with unkempt beard and crazy eye) leads the charge of avaricious clan chieftans and English Catholic noblemen queuing up to be King.
There are nods to the modern fake news culture in the way Mary has her reputation defamed by the public oracles of the time. And to the current battle for Scottish independence, still mired in the religious and unionist squabbles of Mary’s time.
Josie Rourke and her production team pace the movie well, and add intellectual eye candy through costume and make-up. Gently post-modern in its clean look and feel, and slightly cartoonish with elaborate head wear and make up that would make the Queen of Hearts jealous. The casting of black and Asian actors in the roles of white characters, also brings a relevant modernity to the story.
Ronan and Robbie’s performances rise above with a particular shout out to Ronan’s perfect gentle Scottish accent. Bah Humbug to the denigrators who claim Mary wouldn’t have spoken so.
As Queen of Scotland and pretending Queen of England, Mary Stuart tragically failed, but her life still stirs emotion to this day. Such was the strength of her personality, literally to the death, that the nervous executioner needed several swings to get the job done. On the morning of 8 February 1587 in Fotheringhay Castle, it was not until the third blow that she was beheaded. Rourke’s movie show no such uncertainty, sticking cleanly to its themes with no little style. The history feels accurate and there’s something to learn from it for our modern times.