Mary, Queen Of Scots offers powerful, complex, rich and absorbing big-screen epic

Mary Queen of Scots is in cinemas now
Mary Queen of Scots is in cinemas now

Mary, Queen Of Scots (15), (124 mins) - REVIEW

A remarkable story gets the remarkable performances it demands in director’s Josie Rourke’s slow-burn historical epic. It’s not a film which will whiz you to the edge of your seat, but it will slowly, very slowly draw you there, with Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie outstanding as the warring queens who really oughtn’t to be warring, two women so vastly different but with so much in common... and yet separated by so much.

Where director Rourke really succeeds is in presenting the sheer intractability of the situation, two strong women facing each other down, both fired by a huge sense of entitlement and yet both hemmed in by so much.

Mary returns to her native Scotland to reclaim her throne... but it isn’t even as simple as that.

Quite apart from Elizabeth sitting just the other side of the border, Mary is confronted by endless divisions and betrayals within her own camp. Her power is cramped at every turn as husband and brother seek to use her for their own ends. The results are brutal.

But maybe because the emphasis – as the film’s title indicates – is so much on Mary, it’s Elizabeth perhaps who emerges the more fascinating figure, with Robbie brilliant in the way she presents the poignancy of her position as the woman seemingly with everything but actually with nothing. Mary’s tragedy ultimately is that she is abandoned by everyone; Elizabeth’s tragedy is that her life has been empty all along. Which is worse? Barrenness or having a swine for a husband as the price for the heir you crave.

Between them Robbie and Ronan – as the scenes alternate between the two – create a huge sense of the shared, conflicting emotions, from respect to jealousy, from love to anger. Ronan gives us an unswerving, righteous Mary; Robbie’s Elizabeth, more vulnerable, with sadness in her heart and grace towards her rival, is the more interesting figure...

All of which comes as a reminder that this is simply a version of history. Do all the historical inaccuracies matter, not least giving us as fact a meeting which was apocryphal at best? Of course, they do. They matter hugely. But there’s no doubting the result is compelling, dark and absorbing...

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