Reel Talk: ‘Mary Queen of Scots’

January 4, 2019

Margot Robbie has no fear of playing characters with an ugly heart, and her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth I in her newest film “Mary Queen of Scots” is a prime example.

The story, based on the book “Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart” by John Guy, adapted by Beau Willimon and directed by Josie Rourke, breathes life and understanding into an era of two women vying for the British throne. This previously inanimate time in history, forgotten or never known to most of us, comes alive with vibrant and rich characters and a story that is simply spellbinding.

You don’t have to be a fan of history or British history to love this film. You do, however, have to be a fan of a great story, and “Mary Queen of Scots” is a powerful one. We meet young Mary (Saoirse Ronan), recently widowed and returning from France in search of her home and homeland. She is the rightful heir to the British crown, but that seat is currently occupied by her barren, insecure and lonely cousin, the daughter of King Henry VIII, Queen Elizabeth I (Robbie).

Creating her own kingdom in Scotland, Mary, a Catholic, attempts to compromise with her power-hungry cousin which leads to warring countries and everyone eventually showing their true colors.

It’s a sordid story in history as it reveals the era’s intolerance of religious choice, gender equality and the greediness of the men over which these women rule. The film enlightens us to understanding an era where women were not meant to be leaders, especially those who interpret the Bible in this way, and even touches upon sexual identity and the power of those in the majority.

The story depicts Queen Mary, whose intelligence allows her to look beyond her own needs, understanding that her role is to create a better world for both Scotland and England. She is the antithesis of her cousin, Elizabeth, whose conniving and manipulative ways frequently backfire.

It becomes a life and death game of wits with complicated underlying situations that can easily be compared to current times.

Ronan shines in her role as Mary Stuart, finding uncanny strength and power as we find we now know this woman in history. She is wise beyond her years and with her conversations with the men who surround her, we are undeniably drawn to her and understand her.

Robbie’s portrayal of Elizabeth is a courageous one, and she creates the ugliness that eventually exudes from her heart to her appearance. Her lack of confidence and need for love that she can only obtain from her position hardens her heart. She repels us, intellectually, as she authentically becomes this character. Together, Robbie and Ronan are sheer brilliance, creating a compelling and believable story.

The atmosphere that surrounds these women is painstakingly re-created by Rourke as she brings us into the dank, chilled and dark confines of Scotland’s environment. We are transported back to the 1500s, as every detail, from landscape to costuming and make-up are depicted perfectly. And we witness the resiliency, strength and wisdom of the young Queen Mary in this oppressive place, both physically and emotionally, and Rourke captures that with her set design and cinematography.

The story begins at the end, and when the end comes around once again, it is truly chilling. This deeply layered period piece is remarkable as it brings an era and its significant impact upon the course of history to life.

With brilliant performances from both Robbie and Ronan, as well as the supporting cast, we gain compassion and most importantly, understanding of these women and a time of great inequality and intolerance. “Mary Queen of Scots” made my top 10 films of the year list, and I hope it makes yours as well.

4 stars

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