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  • Eddie Hewitt

Mary Queen of Scots

Movie Review: 5 stars

The Guardian film critic Pete Bradshaw was disgruntled by the lack of balance in this film. It’s true, Queen Elizabeth of England gets far less screen time than her Scottish cousin. But this is Mary Queen of Scots, and Scotland’s film. A fine example of devolved movie making. This is also Saoirse Ronan’s film, with a performance of great splendour to be celebrated by the Irish. Standing up for the English is the Australian actress Margot Robbie. She is splendid too, just not so much.

The stories of the two cousins and their respective nations intertwine of course. This is a shared history, viewed from different perspectives and positions of power. In this case, religious rivalry as well as matters of state and conflict on the battlefield.

The similarities are as striking as the differences. Mary and Elizabeth both have claims to the English throne. Mary, a Catholic returning from France, is prepared to be tolerant. Elizabeth, a Protestant, is not. Both are redheads, though Elizabeth needs a wig in her more advanced years to try and match her more youthful and fetching cousin. Elizabeth fails magnificently. The contrast is heightened by her excessive application of clown-like face powder. Thankfully neither has black wooden teeth.

Margot Robbie as the Virgin Queen.

So scary I'm not even going to make a Krusty the Clown joke here

The queens never met in real life. This was an essential part of the relationship and the government of the nations. On screen, a planned meeting in York fails to happen. Elizabeth gets the pox. Mary gets hopeful. But the English Queen survives, albeit scarred and even less of a rival to her cousin in the beauty stakes.

Finally, after a slow and torturous build-up, the cousins come face to face. Mary wanders through a maze of semi-transparent drapes suspended from the ceiling of a cottage in the woods. The suspense is killing us. And then she turns round, and Elizabeth sees, as we all do, that Mary has so many advantages.

In a heated argument, Mary calls Elizabeth her inferior, but here she is referring to birthright, claim to the throne and perhaps religion. Elizabeth is taken aback, but doesn’t argue. They are both angry, jealous and bitter. But not of each other; they hate not being able to live their lives and rule their countries freely. Not being allowed to fulfil their calling and their destiny.

Elizabeth has strength and security, and makes decisions, but her decrees have to be acceptable to all the men around her. She relies on envoys and advisors, including Lord Randolph, the eloquent Adrian Lester. In contrast, Mary defies the men she encounters, including John Knox, the long haired, ranting protestant priest played by David Tennant, and her bastard half-brother, the Earl of Moray (James McArdle).

Lord Randolph (Adrian Lester). Elizabeth's envoy

John Knox (David Tennant). Mary's protestant challenger in her homeland

In both courts, the men are power hungry and obsessed with their own manly interests. I kept wondering why Elizabeth would not marry Dudley, her devoted courtier. Here was a good man who truly loved her, or so it seemed. But she was probably wise to resist him; her status as monarch would have been usurped. Mary also seemed to have a good one, until the night of her marriage to Lord Henry Darnley (Jack Lowden). In a drunken stupor, Mary's new husband ends up in the arms of another man. Big mistake, by all involved! Becoming consort was not enough for a man; merely a stepping stone on the way to claiming power as a king.

Male aggression gathers momentum. William Cecil (Guy Pearce) has his way. Mary is accused of plotting against Elizabeth. Mary loses her battle, her country and her head. We knew this was coming. But, in the form of Saoirse Ronan, the Scottish Queen goes out in a blaze of glory, in a stunning red dress, revealed as a sombre black cloak is drawn away from her, almost Bucks Fizz style, on the way to the block.

What a way to go!

This is the kind of film I delight most in. A bold, dramatic screening of a monumental story in British history, in full period setting, with arresting costumes and engaging dialogue. The cast was superb. The geographic locations spectacular. Politically, there is much relevance for contemporary times but I really don’t want to spoil the movie by linking it too much to current mishandling of our nation. Instead, let’s raise our goblets to...

The Queen!

© Eddie Hewitt 2019


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