Mary Queen of Scots, Mary Stuart or even Mary I of Scotland was a complex character. Several marriages, rumours of affairs, assassination plots and a fragile relationship with her cousin, England’s Elizabeth I. Plenty, therefore, for debut director Josie Rourke to sink her teeth into. And she does so with relish highlighting the struggles both women faced in a predominately man’s world albeit utilising artistic license and throwing history out of the window every now and then.
Recently widowed Mary returns to her native Scotland from France ready to take up her position as Queen. Not everyone’s happy to have a woman, and a Catholic woman no less, on the throne whilst south of the border Protestant Queen Liz is wary of the younger, more beautiful Queen’s intentions.
Thus starts a game of thrones as political intrigue and conspiratorial meetings bring the two ladies head to head as Mary’s fate is somewhat out of her hands courtesy of the men that surround her. Desperate for an heir to cement her claims, an ill-judged marriage to the licentious Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden) and another to the treacherous Earl of Bothwell (Martin Compston) she finds herself alone and in grave danger from all sides.
Saoirse Ronan is superb as Mary bringing a fierce, stubborn passion to the role whilst at the same time making her likeable and sympathetic as events spiral out of her control. She shines in moments of simmering silence as she contemplates the brutal world she finds herself in.
Margot Robbie as Elizabeth I, hiding her natural beauty underneath an enormous amount of make-up, holds her own against Ronan as she battles her own demons and attempts to navigate safe passage through her testosterone fuelled Court. Occasionally her Australian accent slips through, but it’s a moving performance showcasing Elizabeth’s cunning, sadness and reluctant ruthlessness.
An excellent supporting cast includes Adrian Lester, Guy Pearce and Ian Hart with David Tennant cranking up his Scottish accent to 11 and he has a blast as John Knox, the founder of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, openly calling for Mary’s execution.
If you can overlook some of the historical inaccuracies, Mary Queen of Scots is a lavish, entertaining period drama with two exceptional performances as its crowning achievement.
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