Mary Queen of Scots (2018) 

Reviewer: Charity Bishop

History can be a difficult thing to translate to the screen. It has much more nuance, drama, and complexity than most two-hour epics can stand. This recent drama brings the life of the famous Scottish queen in a forgettable manner.

Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan) has landed on Scottish shores after years spent married to the French dauphin. After his death, she returns to claim her ancestral throne, much to the consternation of her cousin, Elizabeth (Margot Robbie). The single monarch sits on an uncertain throne, in a nation divided between its Reformist (Protestant) views, installed by her father, the notorious Henry VIII, and its Catholic roots. Her advisors warn her that the Catholic Queen Mary may threaten her throne’s security and urge her to make war.

But her cousin reaches out to reassure her she has no such intentions… and casts about for a politically advantageous way to seal an alliance with England. Since her marriage could make or break Elizabeth’s reign, against her better wishes, the queen sends her favorite, Robert Dudley (Joe Alwyn), to Scotland to woo her cousin. But Mary spurns him as “the queen’s castoffs.” She sets her eye on a mightier prize, the adventurous, romantic, and pleasure-giving Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden). But even as Mary struggles to maintain order in her new kingdom, a resentful cleric named John Knox (David Tennant) preaches against her “Papist” ways from the pulpit. Mary’s choices will lead her down a dark road, and force Elizabeth into a terrible decision.

As an amateur historian of the Tudors, this film’s inaccuracies stood out to me at once. I can overlook the denim fabric (not invented for awhile and never worn by royalty), but not the modernization of the characters’ attitudes and behaviors. Mary Stuart was a Catholic queen, steeped in her religious ideology, with firm views on heaven and hell. This tolerant woman who reassures her soldiers “we will all go to the same heaven,” who clasps a homosexual’s face between her hands as he wears a dress in her chambers and gently tells him to “be true to himself,” and who forgives that same person when she finds him naked in bed with her husband… is not a period-accurate Mary. Nor would the real Mary have welcomed Darnley into her bed for oral sex before the wedding – putting aside her Catholic inhibitions, she had a little thing like “reputation” to worry about, in a period when her enemies could use any reason to depose her.

The film is also inaccurate in its depiction of Elizabeth, who comes across as flawed and weak. History shows us she was a skeptical, fearful, and cunning manipulator of events, always several steps ahead of her advisors. And while the series does allow her to shine in certain scenes (aided tremendously by a wonderful performance), it takes pains to exaggerate her pockmarked face and jealousy over Mary’s pregnancy. The real Elizabeth would never have bared her shame to her cousin, any more than they would have ever met in secret (although I do not mind that, it’s the most powerful scene). It gets many of the details and circumstances of events right; the murder of one of Mary’s closest friends is harrowing to watch, as is her “forced marriage” by her rapist, but overall it left me feeling underwhelmed.

In an attempt to be modern, the film cuts back and forth between its two heroines almost constantly. This can be dizzying. It leaves Elizabeth with short, disconnected scenes and very little character development. Events also move quickly in Mary’s life, and she comes across as an abrasive opportunist. The music, when it’s there, is memorable – but long periods of time are noticeably silent. The costuming is semi-accurate, the cast is wonderful, but the sex scenes make it feel tawdry, the modern views come across as preachy, and I walked out feeling I would have liked the movie to be about Elizabeth instead… never a good thing when she has about twelve minutes of screen time.

Sexual Content:
Extreme. A man and woman grope in a corridor, he tries to lift her skirt and she reminds him he has a wife; a man enters a woman's chamber, kisses her, and pleasures her orally in a very long scene that focuses on her orgasmic expressions; a woman finds her new husband in bed with a naked man (partial nudity, behind nudity); a man runs around in a dress and says he feels like a woman (a woman affirms him and tells him to be true to himself); a woman climbs onto her drunken husband, stimulates him with her hand, and tells him to get her pregnant; she becomes too aggressive, and he slaps her, so she beats on his chest; he throws her onto the bed and has sex with her from behind (partial nudity); an unmarried couple is often alone / kissing in her bedchamber; a man threatens a woman with rape -- she consents, but we see them having sex (partial nudity on his part).
 
Language:
References to queens being "whores" and the term "bastard."
 
Violence:
Scenes of warfare and brutality; women are slapped and shoved around; in a long, graphic scene, a pregnant woman tries to protect a man from being assassinated -- a man points a knife at her belly and forces her to step aside; they brutally stab him to death until he lies in a bloody pulp (she watches all of this in horror).

Other:
Historical inaccuracies. Modern values and beliefs imposed on the past.