★★★★½ - STUFF
- Saoirse Ronan, Margot Robbie shine in a sumptuous, bold and engrossing film.
-In 1561, a young woman arrived in Scotland, near Leith, to the north of Edinburgh.
She had been christened Mary Stuart. She was the only legitimate surviving heir of King James V and she probably had a stronger claim to the crown of England and the rest of the British Isles than anyone alive, including her cousin Elizabeth, upon whose troubled head that crown presently sat.
Over the next six years, Mary would marry once – disastrously – for love, and then again – catastrophically – for politics. She would bear a child who would go on to rule over the entire United Kingdom, fight and win several battles, but lose the war for the succession to the crown that she believed was her absolute birthright.
Mary Queen of Scots is, by any standards, a hell of a yarn. It can match any series of Game of Thrones for action, bloodshed and intrigue. And, like all history properly retold, it leaves us contemplating how little has changed in the world, even as we wonder what the world would be like today, if a Stuart and not a Tudor had finally got to rest the royal arse in the throne at Westminster.
Mary is based closely on the historian John Guy's acclaimed biography. Guy is a celebrated interpreter and interrogator of the dry facts of history. His book and film writer Beau Willimon's (House of Cards) script do a grand job of winkling out the personalities buried inside the recitation of dates and places that we too often call "history".
Director Josie Rourke is a theatre veteran. For her first foray into film, Rourke brings a genius for staging and performance that should see her secure a long career behind the camera if she can drag herself away from the immediacy and excitement of the stage.
Cinematographer John Mathieson (Gladiator, Logan) lets his camera feast on the rain-sodden, moss-green and granite grey Scottish countryside and makes the most of every iota of candle and fire light for the shadowy and velvety interiors. If Mary isn't up for a couple of technical awards – cinematography, costume and sound at least – then I'll hand in my reviewers licence.
But the real kudos coming this film's way will belong to Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie. As Mary and Elizabeth, one or other of these twin powerhouses is in pretty much every frame of Mary Queen of Scots.
Between them, they essay two portraits of women who were torn apart by the very things they had in common. Both queens spent their lives fighting and attempting to outmanoeuvre the men who would control and undermine them if they could.
Both wrestled mightily with the expectation that they would marry and produce an heir to cement their reigns and legacies. They referred to each other and to the respective countries they ruled as "sisters".
Ronan especially – but there's no flies on Robbie either – takes the role and delivers a new, definitive reading.
Both women are gorgeously well-served by a script that delivers them great mouthfuls of ripe and nuanced dialogue, with every pronouncement seemingly freighted with several layers of meaning, depending on who believes themselves to be the recipient. There's a live-wired physicality and presence to both performances, with the respective queens always at the absolute centre of every frame and moment. The one scene the two women share is a shamelessly theatrical contrivance of a thing, but Rourke's staging and visual intelligence lends it an otherworldliness that is a satisfying release from the blood, mud and desperation that has coloured everything that has gone before.
Mary Queen of Scots is a sumptuous, bold and engrossing film. If you like your history served rare and well-spiced, you'll love it as much as I did.
- Graeme Tuckett, STUFF