George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series was influenced by the brutalities of European monarchies throughout the ages, so it was only a matter of time before period dramas got up to speed following their worldwide success, and started reapplying some grit beneath the lavish costumes. Mary Queen of Scots, the feature debut of renowned theatre director Josie Rourke, goes one step further in its attempt to envelop modern audiences in a power struggle of centuries prior. Although clearly a product of the post Game of Thrones age with its lack of timidity concerning its portrayal of a violent and misogynistic past, Rourke extends the concessions to modern sensibilities in a manner that’s simultaneously intriguing and infuriating.
Mary Stuart is reimagined as a trailblazing feminist icon, which, when played by the eminently likeable Saoirse Ronan, makes for a thrilling interpretation of events. The only problem is that the screenplay by Beau Willimon, who knows a thing or two about scripting power struggles due to his work on House of Cards, does so without exploring how her radical beliefs contradict her devout Catholicism. Mary is feared by Protestant England due to her difference in religion, which only feels liberal in comparison to them - but Willimon’s screenplay doesn’t explore the complicated intricacies of the personal and religious beliefs presented, leaving the viewer to imagine a greater film lurking somewhere in the margins of a good one. It’s an entertaining period romp, that falls ever so slightly short of being something far more powerful.
Leaving France following the death of her husband, Mary returns to Scotland to reclaim her rightful throne. This causes serious concern south of the border, where her cousin Queen Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie) holds the throne to the two countries, and sees a threat to her sovereignty from her Catholic cousin - and, with no heir to the throne due to her inability to conceive a child, she increasingly worries that Britain will soon no longer have a protestant head of state as Mary is next in line to the throne. Up in Scotland, Mary marries Henry Stuart (Jack Lowden), who is the latest of many men to compromise her authority in the hope of restoring power to the patriarchy.
Despite a background in theatre, Rourke’s directorial debut feels assured and cinematic; it may not have the same resources (or commitment to gore) as the average GoT episode, but battle sequences are staged with flair, aided by cinematographer John Mathieson’s ability to capture the beauty of the surrounding British landscapes. She doesn’t stray too far outside of her comfort zone, but this is a far more adventurous transition to filmmaking than has been attempted by several other directors with a theatre background.
The film reimagines the power struggle as a pivotal piece of feminist history, in manners than are far less clumsy than you’d expect - especially considering the tone deaf marketing campaign, which included custom made GIFs of scenes from the film with “yass queen” imprinted upon them. In its grander moments, where it struggles to reconcile this forward thinking Mary with her devout Catholic faith, it misses the mark. But in smaller moments, the film is far more successful in its semi-revisionist interpretations of events, catering to its feminist arguments without drafting overt parallels to modern socio-political concerns. In a move likely to ignite Game of Thrones comparisons even further, one of these is via a surprisingly frank sequence of cunnilingus, the first moment in the film to draw direct parallels between sex and power. The non-conservative nature of this moment may be too much of an affront to older viewers, who, shortly after seeing The Favourite, may have been met with way too much sexual reinvigoration of the stuffy period drama in recent weeks.
But for all the complexities of sequences like the above, the film never truly gets under the skin of Mary’s many contradictions. She is accepting of a gay man in her inner circle, and stays with her husband despite his many flings with other men - but there is no self-reflection within Willimon’s screenplay as to how these decidedly liberal ideals compromise the strict conservatism of her religious beliefs. The film is so hellbent on depicting Mary as a feminist figure years ahead of her time that it erases the complications within her mindset required for this characterisation to hold the weight it requires. Mary Queen of Scots remains a far more entertaining period drama than it has any right to be, with the fast and loose interpretations of historical events never presenting an issue - instead, the only thing holding the film back is the confused, non-inquisitive portrayal of Mary and her beliefs. If it weren’t for Ronan’s skills as an actress, this characterisation would likely be even more of an issue.