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D: Josie Rourke / 124m

Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Margot Robbie, Jack Lowden, Joe Alwyn, Guy Pearce, Adrian Lester, Martin Compston, Ian Hart, James McArdle, David Tennant, Gemma Chan, Ismael Cruz Cordova, Brendan Coyle

Scotland, 1561. Following the death of her French husband, Mary Stuart (Ronan) returns to take up her rightful place as Queen. Her return is viewed with dismay and suspicion by the English court, as Mary has a claim to the English throne should Elizabeth I (Robbie) die without issue. Elizabeth suggests that Mary wed an Englishman, Robert Dudley (Alwyn), and despite Dudley being her lover. Aware that this is a ploy designed to weaken her claim, Mary agrees on one condition: that she be named heir to the throne. With Elizabeth unwilling to consent to this, she sends Henry Darnley (Lowden) to infiltrate Mary’s court, but Mary and Henry fall in love and marry. In time, Mary gives birth to a son, James, but political intrigue sees her own half-brother, the earl of Moray (McArdle) mount an insurgency against her. She quashes this, but further unrest is whipped up by militant preacher John Knox (Tennant), and Mary finds herself being forced to abdicate when James is taken from her by her former protector, Lord Bothwell (Compston). She flees to England, where she seeks help from Elizabeth…

If you have a keen interest in Scottish history, and in Mary Stuart in particular, you might be perplexed by some of the “revelations” that Mary Queen of Scots includes as part of its adaptation of the book Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart by John Guy. For instance, who knew that Henry Darnley and David Rizzio (Cordova), Mary’s “gay friend” (in reality her private secretary) slept together shortly after Mary and Henry were married? (That’s a rhetorical question.) It’s one of many historical inaccuracies and inventions that the movie comes up with to heighten the drama, as if the real story wasn’t exciting or dramatic enough. Also, the action takes place over twenty-six years, from Mary’s return to Scotland, to her execution in 1887. Not that you’d necessarily realise this as the movie appears to take place in a timeless period where no one ages, and plot developments come so thick and fast, that by the time you’ve absorbed one, two more have already gone by. With so much to cram in in two hours, Beau Willimon’s screenplay can only act as a yardstick for excessive historical exposition. But conversely, the movie is strangely reticent when it really matters, such as when Mary pardons Moray and others for their part in the insurgency, leaving the viewer to wonder if they really have missed something.

As the movie progresses, it becomes less and less involving, and less and less impactful, as all efforts to make Mary’s plight appear tragic slowly evaporate, and the narrative trundles on from one historical action point to the next with all the energy of someone trudging through treacle. First time director Josie Rourke, whose background is in theatre, does elicit two compelling performances from Ronan and Robbie, but hasn’t adapted her talents to meet the needs of her movie, and the result is a patchwork of disparate scenes that don’t always allow for a consistent narrative, or characterisations (Bothwell’s change of conscience is particularly troubling). But this is first and foremost a movie that affords Ronan and Robbie the opportunity to reveal just why they are two of the best actresses working today. Ronan is appropriately fiery as Mary, passionate and determined, but unable to combat the forces that lead her to tragedy. Good as Ronan is, though, Robbie is superb as Elizabeth, making her a tragic figure who knows what must be done to protect her kingdom, but whose conscience leaves her feeling sad and isolated. There’s good support too from Pearce and McArdle, and the sets and costumes are a highlight, but ultimately, this is a movie for those who don’t mind if their history lessons are compromised from start to finish.

Rating: 5/10 – coming away from Mary Queen of Scots, the realisation soon sinks in that as a retelling of tumultous events and times in Scotland’s history, it’s not as robust as it needs to be, or as insightful; inevitably, it’s the modernism that lets it down, with Willimon’s script making a bad hash of trying to make the movie feel relevant to today’s feminist outlook, but worse than that, it just doesn’t hold the interest in a way that would make it more compelling.

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