In the wake of her husband’s death, Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan) claims her rightful place on the Scottish throne, in the process making a powerful enemy in John Knox (David Tennant). A leader of the Protestant Reformation and founder of the Church of Scotland, Knox is both offended at the notion of a woman ruling his country and outraged by her open embrace of Catholicism. At only 18 years old, Mary is still quite impetuous and more than a bit green, not realizing the potentially disastrous consequences of dismissing such a powerful man from her court. And indeed, this fallout leads Knox to tirelessly tour the countryside and give speeches that proclaim Mary’s acquiescence to the Pope and question her marital fidelity and the legitimacy of her son’s birth. Lies or not, some things about the mass public never change and the Scottish people eat Knox’s words as if they were freshly boiled haggis.
This impression of Mary as a harlot with insatiable desires is one that endures to this day, particularly in pop culture, and it’s one which Josie Rourke’s Mary Queen of Scots seeks to revise with a more defiantly feminist take on the queen’s life. The Mary of this film is still a woman of strong desires, often stubborn to the point of self-sabotage, but she’s also compassionate and shrewd at navigating a court full of petty, self-serving men who don’t hesitate to turn on her when the opportunity arises. Mary’s cousin, Queen Elizabeth I of England (Margot Robbie), faces many of the same dilemmas, and though the two don’t meet until the end of the film (in real life, they never actually met), Mary Queen of Scots stresses a deeply felt kinship between the queens as they fight to keep the peace between their countries, all while the men around them conspire to alter their fates via murder, marriage, and treason.
Rourke’s film is most compelling when it homes in on the parallels between Mary and Elizabeth as they struggle to reconcile their femininity—particularly Elizabeth, whose exhausted, pox-marked face leads her to remark that the throne has made her “more man than woman”—with their immeasurable power and responsibility in very different ways. Nonetheless, these women share a growing mutual respect which helps them to bridge the rifts created by their conflicts. As Mary tells her maid at one point, “Only another queen would understand,” and it’s this sense of empathy, even from afar, between the cousins which makes their on-and-off battling all the more provocative, such as when Elizabeth sends her lover, Robert (Joe Alwyn), to Scotland to betroth the queen and thus secure a Protestant in power there.
Sussing out her cousin’s devious motives, Mary refuses and continues to demand that Elizabeth name her the heir to the throne of England. But even through contentious times like this, which are typically spurred on by male advisors on both sides of the border, there is a tacit understanding between both women that they truly desire prolonged peace and that it’s their suitors, advisors, and military leaders who seem dead-set on preserving an animosity between Scotland and England. Yet, while this bond between Mary and Elizabeth offers a new perspective on both historical figures, the temptation to give into the tropes of the biopic prove too great for the filmmakers.
After setting up Elizabeth as both an adversary to and mirror reflection of Mary, Mary Queen of Scots proves true to its namesake, diving into the wide array of controversies Mary faced in Scotland during her reign, all while sidelining Elizabeth until the final scenes. In banal and predictable fashion, the film proceeds to fixate on Mary’s tempestuous battles with almost everyone in her inner circle, from her secretary of state, Lord Maitland (Ian Hart), and her commander of troops, Bothwell (Martin Compston), to her half-brother, Moray (James McArdle), and her husband, Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden). Every single one conspires with Knox to eject Mary from the throne.
All this palace intrigue and endless backstabbing feels at once overly familiar and underdeveloped, and to the point that the motives of secondary characters are often murky and confusing; we even get a subplot about the relationship between Lord Darnley and one of Mary’s openly gay advisers (Ismael Cruz Córdova), for no other reason it seems than to make a show of the Queen’s very modern sense of mercy and tolerance. The film simply never takes the time to flesh out any of its male characters or the historical background upon which all their deceitful maneuvers take place. So, as effective as Rourke is at exposing the emotional and physical toll of reigning as queen when exploring Mary and Elizabeth’s relationship, her portrait of an endless string of betrayals ends up as simply faceless and impersonal.