Mary Queen of Scots is the new biopic following the story of Scotland’s last independent monarch, Mary Stuart, from the time of her return from France at 18 years old to the time of her execution just over 25 year later.

It stars Saoirse Ronan (Lady Bird) and Australia’s own Margot Robbie, as well as some young up-and-coming actors in Jack Lowden (Dunkirk, the TV mini-series War & Peace) and Joe Alwyn (The Favourite, Boy Erased).

Several of the supporting cast are also quite well known, with important secondary roles played by Australia’s Guy Pearce (Memento, Australian TV’s Jack Irish) and David Tennant (Doctor Who). The film is directed by well-known London theatre director Josie Rourke, in what is her first major motion picture, and the story is based on the John Guy biography Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart.

The narrative essentially begins at the time a recently widowed Mary Stuart returns from France to her native Scotland, where she once more takes up the title of Queen of Scotland. This throws Great Britain into chaos, as Mary’s return is doubly troubling for Queen Elizabeth in England, as she is a staunch Catholic (as opposed to Elizabeth, who is now the head of the Church of England), and Mary also has a stronger claim to the English throne than Elizabeth does. The film then focuses on the machinations of and between the two royal courts in Edinburgh and in London, the two queens’ quest for love and to produce possible heirs, and their attempts to rule over all their subjects while playing a real-life chess game with their male advisors and courtiers.

The film itself is wonderfully created on screen. The sets, the lighting, the outdoor scenery, the costuming and the absolute attention to detail is first rate. John Mathieson’s cinematography is exceptional, particularly the sweeping outdoor vistas of the Scottish Highlands. And first-time director Josie Rourke brings her passion for the theatre onto the screen, especially in the scenes in the royal courts. The plot is decent and easy enough to follow for much of the film – the major events are historically accurate.

However, in the last quarter of the movie, time jumps forward several times without explanation, noted by the sudden ageing of young Prince James, Mary’s son. In addition, certain liberties seem to have been taken throughout the film to adapt some points and characters to modern 21st Century sensibilities, whereas other plot points and inferences were left as they would have been in the 16th Century (making what is shown on screen a little convoluted). And despite being merely based on a rumour, the scene the audience is looking forward to the most – the meeting of the two queens – is included at the film’s climax.

The two major actresses were a contrast in this movie. I truly felt Margot Robbie was wasted in the role of Queen Elizabeth, given her screen time was much less than that of Queen Mary. Robbie’s acting was still good – there simply wasn’t a lot of it. On the back of her efforts in I, Tonya, Robbie added some ‘star power’ to this film. And as the film went on, her character became more and more like the Queen of Hearts from “Alice in Wonderland” than Queen Elizabeth.

However, this film belongs to Irish actress Saoirse Ronan. Her acting was exceptional – she brought emotion and genuine depth to Mary Stuart. Her speeches and interactions with her male co-stars were fantastic. In one scene she could be strong and stoic, in another fragile and vulnerable, and at the climax of the film in the meeting with Queen Elizabeth, she was riveting (you could have heard a pin drop in the cinema). Ronan’s part is the clear standout, as befitting the title role of this biopic. I would love to see her receive an Oscar Nomination for Best Actress for this role, but time will tell.

If you like a good English historical drama, this film will be perfect for you, even with a couple of modern day tweaks to it. Well worth a look.

4 stars

Reviewed by David Emms