Mary Queen of Scots review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
This is the type of costume drama that finds all the right period attire, spends so much time getting it all to look good and then the drama is expected to just sort of fall into place. It’s a film that frames Mary as a powerful figure but also one of tough choices that rocked her foundation. Yet in the desire to cover what is perhaps the most intense portion of her life, Mary Queen of Scots ultimately comes up rather standard as far as historical epics on notable historical figures.
Saoirse Ronan at least puts in a strong performance as a young and determined Mary Stewart, Queen of Scotland in the 1560s. For not even being 20, she has had a rocky life so far. She has just returned from France after the death of her husband and must continue to take on her throne. With pressures from England, Mary is seen as a young person that could damage the foundation of the Protestant faith in how she gazes with compassion. She’s also very much threatened by her jealous cousin, Queen Elizabeth the First of England (Margot Robbie). With very different outlooks on life and what it means to be proper loyalty, they’ll clash in matters of national affairs.
What follows is a tangled with web of deception and sorrow. Death looms in the form of conspiring assassination attempts and the threat of smallpox. Lies are spun and thrones are fought for in bitter rivalries. Children enter the picture and matters of family and defending a nation become tougher to maintain. War is on the horizon as Mary leads her men into battle, though nothing all that sprawling. Again, the film favors more allure from the fact that her forces could even be assembled on-screen than watching them charge into combat.
Mary Queen of Scots is one of those classroom films that pays great devotion to its historical context but offer little more to explore in its connecting of events. While it does paint an informative picture of how Mary’s marriage altered these plans and how her order for assassination affected those plans, so little of this explores her more as a character. It showcases Mary more as a stern figure of little to move her. Consider the scene where she hands off her crying child to her men while she rides off into battle. In Mary’s state of armor and horse, she glances back only a few times as she hears her child cry out longingly. She remains stoic. She must in such tough times.
But how many historical epics have featured this scene where emotions are hampered and hidden behind closed doors, only coming out quietly when all eyes are averted and the music turns melancholic? In this aspect, the film doesn’t really tell us much we already know. Of course, it’d be tough for a mother to ride off into the distance to leave their child behind, even if they were so adrift in their political struggle to shed only a few tears. Mary as a character is seen as far too noble, right up to her death where all she cares about is the well-being of her son and peace for her country. A sense of family and nationalism may have been interesting to explore but not so much in a film more caught up in connecting dates and events with the same level of accuracy in the costumes.
I can’t falter a film such as this for wanting to play things straight with the material, hopefully making for a more astute essay by a student too bothered to brush up on their history book. But what Mary Queen of Scots offers in its detailed portrait is more on the surface than anything that lies beneath its bulk dresses and clunky armor.