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Mary, Queen of Scots (2018) Review

Infatuated with the Tudors since reading about Elizabeth I in second grade. She also finds dysfunctional dynasties fascinating.

Mary, Queen of Scots, played by Saoirse Ronan

Mary, Queen of Scots, played by Saoirse Ronan

It's 1561, and Mary has a claim to Elizabeth I's throne, thus making her a thorn in her cousin Elizabeth's side. Mary's husband Francis has died of an ear infection, and the next scene shows Mary presumably walking to her execution in a castle's Great Hall. We have a lot of ground to cover.

Saoirse Ronan, aka Mary Queen of Scots lands at Scotland's dark and dreary shores, a premonition of what's to come. Mary is eighteen, has spent most of her life in France, and is Catholic. She is walking into a hornet's nest in mostly Protestant Scotland.

The noblemen that are meant to protect her are hellbent on undermining her, or worse. She finds solace in her personal assistant and violinist, David Rizzio, a Jonathan Van Ness lookalike. (At any time, I'm expecting him to expel his clever sass to her adversaries. Sadly, he does not.) That’s the jist of the movie, and it’s mostly true.

The scenes switch back and forth from polar opposites Scotland and England, where we meet an unrecognizable Margot Robbie as Elizabeth I. Elizabeth's reactions to Mary's letters indicate a testy and insecure relationship, under the guise of the sugary term "sister". While the movie is intended to focus on Mary's life, it certainly spends a lot of time attempting to explain their relationship, but unfortunately, it falls completely short.

The movie misses a huge opportunity to explain the drama and the similarities between them, which is necessary to understand Mary's unfortunate ending. After all, both women are tragic figures. Elizabeth is reportedly infertile, at a time when women were responsible to produce an heir. Being Anne Boleyn's daughter, she knows that better than anyone. Anne was unjustly executed by her husband, Henry VIII for not giving him a son, and generally being an intelligent woman. In doing so, Elizabeth was bastardized, and downgraded to the humiliating Lady Elizabeth. She has seen how quickly a man can turn on a woman, and is determined not to let that happen again.

Meanwhile, Mary came from a sheltered, mostly Catholic court in France. Her mother Marie seemingly wants to run Scotland like her native France, which makes Scotland seethe. When Mary comes to power, she is unprepared and doesn't stand a chance. This background would provide a basis for what each woman is up against, and why it is even more of a tragedy that they don't come together.

Despite this glaring detail, due credit should be given to both Ronan and Robbie. Ronan does an excellent job of keeping Mary as a reasonably sharp-tongued and unwilling victim to Robbie's accurately cunning, yet sympathetic Elizabeth.

The movie takes liberties with a couple things, like the styling of her half-brother, James, who we meet at Holyrood Palace. Dear James looks like he's auditioning as a Dothraki on Game of Thrones, with his eyeliner, man buns, beach waves, and headbands. The rest of the costuming is exquisite, with beautiful dresses juxtaposed with frivolous hairstyles that seem to unravel as Mary's life does.

Say no to guyliner, James! (right), Mary (center), Darnley (left)

Say no to guyliner, James! (right), Mary (center), Darnley (left)

Holyrood Palace itself becomes an understated main character as the gloomy walls close in on Mary with little hope and few windows. Mary is stuck between pleasing her cousin, with whom she wants her to name her as successor, and her people of Scotland, who despise her in growing numbers.

When Mary is able to take temporary pleasure, she is almost always manipulated in some way. Lord Darnley charms Mary in the bedroom, placing himself in the running to be her next husband. (In reality, Mary's Catholic beliefs would frown upon anything sexual without procreation.) This would fulfill Elizabeth's wish that it be a Englishman, but as Darnley is a mutual cousin of both women and has his own claim to the throne, throws Elizabeth into a fury. Mary can do no right.

Her small group of trusted friends again shrinks as Darnley debuts his inner, violent drunkard self. Darnley's father spearheads Darnley's presumed lover Rizzio's murder, in a dramatic and telling scene of Mary's real position as one of the men holds a knife to Mary's stomach.

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Mary becomes a Survivor contestant that's about to be voted off--she may see what's happening, and but can't do anything to stop it. It's awkward and heart wrenching. The movie here does its' job.

Poor Jonathan Van Ness. I mean, Rizzio.

Poor Jonathan Van Ness. I mean, Rizzio.


However, after unnecessarily taking a long hour and a half to explain most of this story, Elizabeth and Mary finally meet at a countryside barn. This stagnant scene culminates their relationship in twisting rows of freshly laundered sheets, but is dragged out like an indie art movie with minimal colors and no point. (In reality, there is no evidence that either woman met each other.) Mary and Elizabeth seemingly play hide-and-seek between laundry for several long seconds, but it's out-of-place without the aforementioned individual histories of the two women.

The women finally show themselves, and Elizabeth removes her wig, exposing her bald head as both women share a deep conversation. The wig can be a metaphor for the unnecessary drama between them, and the sheets are white, the color of peace. I am guessing that's the takeaway?

That's why Mary's execution as the ending, is especially strange. This could have captured a bookend to the fascinating and complicated saga of the two women, but alas, another missed opportunity. We are literally missing twenty years.

To catch you up, Mary is imprisoned at some point by her people, presumably the nobles. One night, she gets the guards drunk and flees to England where she asks for Elizabeth's help. Elizabeth obliges. At some point, Elizabeth feels uneasy about her houseguest, and tells her that she cannot leave. Elizabeth moves Mary around castles in the English countryside as Mary remains a prisoner for nearly twenty years.

At some point, an English Catholic noble named Anthony Babington wants to assassinate Elizabeth, and replace her with Mary. He sends Mary letters that Elizabeth's spymaster (Sir Francis Walshingham) intercepts. In one of those letters, Walshingham poses himself as Babington, to see if Mary will implicate herself. In probably seeing an opportunity to free herself, she does. Mary is tried, and found guilty.

Elizabeth is again in an awkward spot. Not only is Mary her cousin, but a fellow queen, and regicide sets a dangerous precedent. One version of this is that Elizabeth reluctantly signs the death warrant, but tells her close advisers to hold off on her execution until she gives the word. Instead, they go behind her back and proceed. Historians are still torn as to whether Elizabeth actively signed it or not. Either way, Elizabeth takes four months to sign Mary's death warrant, and gives Mary one days' notice to her execution. Now wouldn't that make for a great movie?


Overall, the movie was fair. Most of it was true, the actors superb, the costumes delightful, the accents at times mediocre, but the half-noted content and slow pacing left much to be desired. The disorganized 'Mary, Queen of Scots' might have been one last metaphor for Mary's life: scattered and tragic.


Lauren Sutton (author) from Milwaukee, WI on April 21, 2020:

Thank you! Glad you enjoyed.

Ivana Divac from Serbia on April 17, 2020:

Great review. Very detailed and well-written.

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