This post may contain affiliate links.
If you buy something from one of the linked sites you won’t pay anything more, but I might make a commission.
While Mary Queen of Scots didn’t grab me as hard emotionally as I would have liked, it’s a very good movie with two powerhouse actors showing off their talents.
Historical dramas can be problematic if what you know about the actual history clashes with what’s happening on screen. Luckily for me, I knew nothing about the period in history covered by Mary Queen of Scots, which goes into wide release today.
You think I’m kidding? I didn’t know that Elizabeth had Mary beheaded. (Settle down Captain Spoiler Alert, it’s given away in the movie’s opening sequence.) I mean, if you’re going to know one thing about those two queens, that would probably be it, right? I didn’t. I did know that Elizabeth I was known as The Virgin Queen, but that was it. Somehow, I’ve managed not to see any of the acclaimed movies about her that might have given me some hints about the events of her life. Never took a college course about Elizabethan England. Never even read a tawdry historical novel or watched a TV series about the period (anything I’ve read or watched that came close was about Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII). Seriously, when I say I went in knowing nothing, I mean nothing.
So all that chatter online about the historical inaccuracies? I was as oblivious as I was when I fell in love with Braveheart (which was pretty much all lies). I was able to just watch the movie and not wrestle with any preconceived notions. I was a bit distracted at first by some of the cast members, most notably Adrian Lester and Gemma Chan. Would a black man and an Asian woman have been members of a royal court at that point in history? I doubt it. If it was nontraditional casting, I think that’s fantastic and I want more of it, because there’s just no good reason not to (and no, confusing me in the first ten minutes of a movie isn’t reason enough not to).
And anyway, all of the other actors are just satellites orbiting around Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie. Ronan takes up about two-thirds of the story, but both actors are just fucking amazing, I don’t know how else to say it. Both parts are fantastic showcases, but Robbie has the harder job and meatier role, while Ronan gets to embody the word “feisty” and emote her way through one disastrous decision after another.
Director Josie Rourke, who is apparently known more for her work in live theater (she’s the artistic director of Donmar Warehouse, a theater in London), does an excellent job of showing us what I imagine sixteenth-century castle life would be like, all stone and shadows and coldness. The one visual quibble I have (OK, it’s more than a quibble) is that while she does an excellent job shepherding Robbie’s queen from youthful beauty to smallpox-ravaged clown, Ronan’s queen looks exactly the same from start to finish, even though she has aged from 18 to 44 by the end of the movie. I really don’t understand that decision at all.
The movie definitely earns its R rating, with some scenes of sex and death that are hard to watch. Despite being a queen and supposed ruler, Mary’s claim to the throne is partly dependent on who she chooses to marry and produce an heir with, and after seeing what she goes through trying to find a husband who won’t be a complete disaster, Elizabeth’s decision to remain single makes more and more sense. Mary’s attempts at sexual and emotional happiness are her downfall, while Elizabeth’s rejection of her sexuality seems to drive her mad, but at least she keeps her head.
Still, despite the stakes being very high (life-and-death high), the movie somehow managed to not get me too emotionally involved, and I can’t put my finger on why. I liked it, I’m glad I saw it, the acting was amazing, the story compelling. But I can’t bring myself to gush. It was really good, but somehow not quite enough. I wish I could articulate it better. I guess I never really got why Mary wanted to be queen so badly, except that she thought it was her right. Her quest left me empty. I wasn’t rooting for anyone in the movie, which kept me from loving it. But I did like it a lot, and if you like period dramas, you should see it.