Review: Two Strong Performances Carry a Shaky Mary Queen of Scots

There is little doubt in this most recently telling of the life and death of Mary Stuart (here portrayed by Saoirse Ronan), the ambitious Queen of Scotland, eager to build bonds with her older cousin, the Queen of England, Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie), that the true villains of the piece aren’t each other, vying for a crown upon which they both have claims. No, the ones who would seek to weaken both women are the men around them, desperate for slivers of power in Scotland and England that they don’t believe any woman should possess. Mary Queen of Scots portrays these monarchs as very similar, despite religious differences, and eager to meet to settle once and for all the question of who has the rightful place as the kingdom’s god-given ruler. But such a connection might actually result in peace between the women, and their weasel-like advisors don’t stand to benefit in times of stability.

Mary Queen of Scots Image courtesy of Focus Features

Although Mary’s return to her native Scotland is met with a great deal of enthusiasm by the people, her willingness to make concessions to her cousin’s wishes does not meet well with some of her advisors, including the popular Protestant leader John Knox (a fiery David Tennant), who has no issues lying about Mary's sexual conquests or calling her a whore queen to drive her subjects away from her. At one point, Elizabeth agrees to send her lover Henry Darnley (Jack Lowden) to Scotland, in the hopes of wooing and controlling Mary, but the plan backfires when he falls for Mary, leaving Elizabeth both alone and at the greatest risk of losing her crown. Marriage is treated like a weapon of war in Mary Queen of Scots, and by agreeing to wed or not, both of these women stand to gain or lose a great deal depending on their choice of husband. As we know, Elizabeth never married, which was a powerful asset in certain circumstances as well as a path to a lifetime of feeling quite alone.

The supporting players in the cast include Guy Pearce, Ian Hart, Gemma Chan and Joe Alwyn, all of whom are given their moments to illustrate the pull they have on their leader of choice. In the end, they become slightly interchangeable. The stunning costumes and lush production design go a long way in establishing first-time feature filmmaker Josie Rourke’s (a theater director and artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse Theatre) control and understanding of the art form, while the screenplay from Beau Willimon (adapting the book "Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart" by John Guy) offers us an inside glance into a very different type of warfare.

There’s a sequence in which the two women meet that I don’t believe is based on fact—if they did indeed meet secretly, this film creates a version of that meeting that feels surreal rather than authentic. But putting these two fine actresses together for the only time shows how differently and brilliantly they play these characters. Robbie plays Elizabeth as a survivor (of illness and a host of conspirators), while Ronan’s Mary is a creature of pure passion that sometimes overpoweres her highly intelligent mind.

Mary Queen of Scots is sometimes listless, complicated and steeped in a history that may require a bit of research either before or after seeing the film (not necessarily a bad thing). As a profile of two women effectively pitted against each other because allowing them to combine forces would have been inconvenient for many on the outskirts of power, it’s downright tragic. And this makes it ripe for these two great performers to dig into and make great, even if the material isn’t always.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.