AFI Fest Review: ‘MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS’ is more than a textbook period piece

Courtney Howard // Film Critic

MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS

Rated R, 125 minutes
Directed by: Josie Rourke
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Margot Robbie, Guy Pearce, Joe Alwyn, Jack Lowden, David Tennant, James McArdle, Gemma Chan, Martin Compston, Ismael Cruz Cordova, Adrian Lester

Director Josie Rourke’s MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS may not be entirely historically accurate, but it does show how to create a feminist-friendly, diverse biopic with all the dramatic dynamics of a political potboiler. Based on John Guy’s novel Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart and adapted by HOUSE OF CARDS creator Beau Willimon, it’s a percolating portrait of two queens locked in a parallel struggle to retain the respect of their people and the right to the throne. While the power plays go off like powder kegs, the picture fizzles out before its climax.

The film begins in media res (an attention grabbing device I wish filmmakers would stop using), showing Mary (Saoirse Ronan) in the moments prior to her beheading. In the first of many gasp-inducing moments, her black dress is ripped away, revealing a bright red dress and a woman standing in quiet resolute strength before onlookers and her executioner. The journey that led her there is a fascinating, if not tumultuous, one marked with death, betrayal and rebellion. Twenty-six years prior, she’s a wide-eyed young Catholic woman returning to her native Scotland – a country torn between its Catholic and Protestant factions – in order to reclaim the throne after a brief stint as the Queen of France. However, her cousin Queen Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie) is currently sitting pretty as the Protestant Queen of England. What ensues is a strategic game for the pair, figuring out how to navigate their male-dominated worlds as monarchs. But in doing so, they become locked in a rivalry for the ages.

(l-r) Grace Molony, Margot Robbie and Georgia Burnell in MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS. Courtesy of Focus Features.

With nuance and grace, the filmmakers connect the two queens’ quests. While Elizabeth appears to be losing everything she cherishes in order to retain her power (like the love of her life and her looks), Mary is gaining everything she ever wanted (like beauty, a loving marriage and an heir). Little does Lizzie know that Mary’s perceived bliss turns into her ruin. Her husband Henry, Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden) is a hustler, and everyone in her council wants to see her demise. Those include her half-brother the Earl of Moray (James McArdle), religious reformation leader John Knox (David Tennant, in a grandiose performance) and head of security the Earl of Bothwell (Martin Compston). That said, the payoff of all the double-crossing and duplicity is a whimper rather than a scream.

Although they don’t give us a burning end note to the journey, it’s clear that Rourke and Willimon are skilled at crafting the mounting tension of dramatic emotional stakes – and Ronan and Robbie are terrific at bringing it to life. They both give bravura performances as the foes, full of strength, vigor and vulnerability. The drama is less like a history lesson and more like a sudsy geek soap opera (think HOUSE OF CARDS meets GAME OF THRONES). It’s highly entertaining to see a pair of capable, strong-willed and intelligent women attempt to out-maneuver each other. Plus, it’s heartening to see a diverse cast in a period piece, playing roles in the queens’ inner circles – like Mary’s gay confidant (Ismael Cruz Cordova), or Elizabeth’s Ambassador (Adrian Lester) and friend Bess of Hardwick, Countess of Shewsbury (Gemma Chan).

Aesthetically, Rourke and company deliver all the sumptuous sheen audiences expect in a period piece. She and cinematographer John Mathieson utilize every inch of the widescreen format to tell their story. In one scene, they symbolically connect the saturated red of Mary’s afterbirth on the sheets between her legs with the red curled ribbon flowers laid out between Elizabeth’s legs – both products of their creation. This all pops against the black, gray, blue, and navy color palette of James Merifield’s gorgeous production design. In a later scene, the diffused light pouring through the gauzy sheets during Mary and Elizabeth’s showdown provides a fascinating juxtaposition to the hard truths the ladies reveal to each other.

Perhaps the most valuable players here are Jenny Shircore’s incandescent, show-stopping hair and makeup designs (it’s like the cinematic hair show competition you never knew you needed), in conjunction with Alexandra Byrne’s stunning costume designs, which provide further character depth and dimension. Not that I’m pitting women against each other, but Robbie’s prosthetic nose is unparalleled work that runs rings around fellow Aussie Nicole Kidman’s from THE HOURS.

Grade: B

MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS played AFI Fest on November 16. It opens in limited release on December 7 with a slow rollout to follow.

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