A starry Mary Queen of Scots proves an intriguing if a little frustrating film debut for Josie Rourke
“The world will decide for itself”
An intriguing, if a little frustrating one this. Josie Rourke is a titan in the world of theatre and Mary Queen of Scots marks her cinematic debut. But despite a classy pair of lead performances from Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie as diametrically opposed queens Mary and Elizabeth, an ensemble consisting of the cream of British acting talent, and the sweeping beauty of the Highlands to frame every other shot, the film never really quite sparks into life.
Beau Willimon’s screenplay, based on John Guy’s book Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart, dances around historical accuracy with its own determination, building in a climactic meeting between the two which although visually striking, dramatically brings precious little. Before then, the film is plotted as a strategic confrontation between two monarchs, two women, who are battling the worlds around them as much as each other.
The film ends up feeling curiously unbalanced though, Mary’s story about her return to Scotland after the death of her French husband is far more dynamic as she struggles to establish herself in her own Scottish court as well as defining her relationship to the Engilsh throne. Ronan plays this with gleeful abandon, emerging as an apparent LGBT+ ally and a fan of (receiving) oral sex whilst coming to terms with a destiny that is inevitable as it is brutal.
As the more established Elizabeth, Robbie suffers by comparison, saddled with too much expositionary dialogue, shining best at the moments where she strains against the limitations of her gender. Around them both is a veritable treasure trove of theatrical talent – David Tennant’s bearded John Knox, James McArdle’s similarly hirsute Moray, Gemma Chan’s Bess of Hardwick and Adrian Lester’s controlled Randolph standing out. Overall though, not quite enough excitement to break through the overly familiar.