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Home / Industry / Media /  Film review: ‘Mary Queen of Scots’ tells parallel stories of women in power 

This ambitious period film explores the battle of wits and the power struggle between two queens: Elizabeth I of England (Margot Robbie) and Mary Stuart of Scotland (Saoirse Ronan). Beau Willimon’s screenplay, an adaptation of John Guy’s book Queen of Scots: The true life of Mary Stuart, has been directed by Josie Rourke. It’s ironic that neither lead actress is English or Scottish. Robbie is Australian and Ronan is of Irish descent.

Mary is married into French royalty at 15 and returns home to Holyrood Palace, Scotland, as a widow at age 18. Across the land, the unmarried Protestant queen Elizabeth sees the beautiful Catholic Mary as a threat to her throne.

The film opens in 1587 England, with Mary about to lose her head. It then flashes back in 1561, with Mary taking on the council that has thus far been ruling Scotland. The council is uncomfortable, even slighted, at the idea of an outspoken Papist ruling the land. This leads to opposition, conspiracies and betrayal. In England, Protestant Elizabeth’s overtures towards her cousin in the north is also inviting resistance from her ranks, lead by the head of the Privy Council Sir William Cecil (Guy Pearce).

The queens communicate through letters and emissaries and express a desire to meet but, unlike the scene in the film, in reality they never did. Rourke designs a wispy near meet-cute between Mary and Elizabeth and then hits the brakes just before the scene becomes even more weightless.

The premise is fascinating but the direction dips and dives. It might have been more affecting had the focus remained on the parallel stories of two women in power, operating in an intensely patriarchal society where all their advisors are men and the only women who have their confidence are the ladies-in-waiting.

Mary refuses to compromise with England, and her salacious reputation is exaggerated via the orthodox clergy. Her reputation was murky, but Rourke’s film is fundamentally sympathetic and the juxtaposition of the two queens is convenient and debatable. The fertile Catholic queen with many husbands (Mary married three times and bore one son), enviable beauty and rumours of her questionable morality on one side and the smallpox-afflicted barren virgin Protestant queen on the other.

Mary and Elizabeth both have extravagant hairdos and dramatic gowns but the crowning glory of Mary Queen of Scots is the performances by Ronan and Robbie. In spite of being handcuffed by uninspired storytelling, they excel in communicating strength, vulnerability and isolation as two monarchs ruling in a man’s world.

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