“Orf with their heads”. This Queen of Hearts decree is an violent literary line and an unpleasant truth for real life figure, Mary Stuart. The lucid hijinks of Lewis Carroll’s creation may not be there but the duelling nature of power and the cartoon characters’ behaviour based on Mary’s temperament most certainly is.
After returning home to Scotland in 1561, Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan) takes over royal duties from her half-brother. Due to her blood line she has rightful claim to the throne in England, but that is taken by Queen Elizabeth (Margot Robbie). As the years pass by, the arguments of men tip the balance between the sisters and an heir borne by Mary could help her claim what she believes is rightfully hers.
Josie Rourke takes charge of this period drama and her theatre background is evident. She has been artistic director of London’s Donmar Warehouse since 2012 and her stage know-how helps give the film a theatrical buzz, something akin to that sensation you get when watching a live show. The shifting powers within the story are ones you could easily picture being acted out on stage, though for a film, there are times that the theatrical element feels like it’s a movie just ticking off each historical chapter like a scene in a play.
Rourke does show she has a great handle on the back and forth dramas of this politically laden period piece but at a few spots it feels like the director’s reins are slipping ever so slightly, as if the film is slowing down too much. Adding to Rourke’s confident handle on drama and actor management are some stunning visuals from John Mathieson; his work reflects the royal production value, with both England and Scotland looking gorgeous on screen. All in all, ‘Mary Queen of Scots’ is a glorious film to look at.
The costume and make up deserve our endless curtsies. The detail to be seen throughout this film is incredible, from jewellery to ruffled accessories, dresses, armour and hair pieces, the film is a marvel of fashion and 16th century period vision. It isn’t only the look of the people that stirs a pleasing response, the see-sawing political alignments between Protestant and Catholic, Scotland and England and Mary and Elizabeth are fascinating to watch on the most part. Shadowy whisperings in privy counsels are explored well, the way these men attempt to puppeteer the forces of the women they seek to serve are fleshed out nicely. On that note, this film is a tale for the ages which sits neatly within the current climate of power between women and men. Mary’s boldness is a trait we should respect and Elizabeth’s compassion and ailments are virtuous trademarks.
Ronan and Robbie are thoroughly compelling, their turns as rival women in charge are spellbinding, yet neither steals the show or feels like a person to root for over the other. It’s a film that sees them both somehow lost in a time of great heartache and civil unrest. Come their one and only scene together you can’t help but be truly lost in their performances, which makes their meeting amongst some hanging linen that much more resoundingly effective.
‘Mary Queen of Scots’ knows how to swirl together conspiracy, words of war and consequent bloodshed. If its story isn’t altogether cinematic and solidly formed you can rely on the talents of the two actors to get you through a turbulent time in history.