Review: Ronan and Robbie Reign in ‘Mary Queen of Scots’

Mary Queen of Scots (2018) - Focus Features

‘Mary Queen of Scots’ Plays to Standard Costume Drama Fare

From Henry VIII to Anne Boleyn to Elizabeth I, 16th-century Tudor England has taken all sorts of forms on both the big and small screen. The kingdom’s sister to the north, Scotland, is depicted less frequently, though remains a pivotal player in both nations’ politics and religious ideals. In Mary Queen of Scots, first-time director Josie Rourke examines the rivalry and respect between Elizabeth and the titular Mary, which changed the course of history.

Inspired by John Guy’s biography, Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart, Rourke covers plenty of ground in Mary Queen of Scots. Though it’s a 16th-century history lesson that treads costume drama water that’s plays itself off as another piece of the puzzle. After the death of her husband, King Francis II, Queen Mary (Saoirse Ronan) returns to Scotland after years abroad reigning in France. Despite religious differences, She hopes to achieve peace with her English cousin, Queen Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie). Both women are without a biological heir to the throne. Mary believes she has a legitimate claim to succeed Elizabeth if her cousin fails to produce an heir, ultimately uniting both countries.

While Mary Queen of Scots shifts back and forth, balancing the drama within both England and Scotland, Mary’s narrative is given the priority here. With Mary Queen of Scots as the title, one almost expects that type of decision, though Robbie’s Elizabeth is given her due as well. House of Cards screenwriter, Beau Willimon maintains a gray balance between the two monarchs. Other historical dramas focusing heavier on Elizabeth have characterized Mary more as a dangerous threat to the crown. As both points of view are presented, Willimon mirrors the political drama in England with that of Scotland.

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Yes, there is some uneasiness between Mary Queen of Scots and her cousin, but the Willimon’s script will occasionally mute that rivalry when internal threats emerge. Female monarchs were a novelty in the 16th-century Europe and upset the established order. Nobles weren’t exactly thrilled answering to a woman, despite hereditary right. Mary finds herself at odds with her ambitious second husband Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden), Protestant cleric John Knox (David Tennant) and her half-brother (James McArdle). It’s times like these the girls have to stick together in this perpetual power struggle. Coming off of last year’s Lady Bird, Ronan steps into the shoes of cinematic legends, Katharine Hepburn and Vanessa Redgrave, who also played Mary Queen of Scots. Draped in Alexandra Byrne’s impeccable costume work, Ronan carries the film with quite the regal aura. Even if the script and direction aren’t a crowning achievement, it’s a fairly acceptable examination into the life of Scotland’s queen.

Admittedly, creative liberties are taken by Rourke and crew. Court dynamics are slightly modernized, which might be frustrating to history buffs. Mary Queen of Scots builds upon nearly two hours of whether or not the two queens will come face to face with one another. History claims they didn’t, but after the political intrigue, this becomes the film’s ultimate payoff. Years of drama and maneuvering leads to one climactic conversation. For both Ronan and Robbie, the brief moment the two share is where they can offer the most in an otherwise typical costume drama. Other period pieces as of late have defied the norms of what we’ve come to expect from costume dramas. Outside of a rushed finale that should bear greater consequence, Mary Queen of Scots stays the course of what’s come before in Hollywood.

Even if Mary Queen of Scots plays around with history a bit, it’s satisfying enough for those wanting to catch up on their 16th-century royal drama. Both Ronan and Robbie surely hold their own in their obligatory costume drama while greater futures lie ahead.

Written by
Matt Marshall has been reviewing films since 2003, starting with "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King." He specializes in home media, including 4K UHD, Blu-ray as well as box office analysis. He has a B.A. in Communications/Journalism from St. John Fisher College and resides in Rochester, NY.

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