Scottish history is a rich tapestry of violence, betrayal and intrigue and one would expect this to be excellent material for a film. Unfortunately, Josie Rourke’s recent adaptation fails to use this to its full potential.
The film details the life of Mary Queen of Scots in her return to Scotland, following the death of her first husband, the Dauphin of France. On her arrival, she is greeted by the infighting that permeates Scottish political life and a throng of opportunistic men, each attempting to gain more power and influence than the other. Indeed, these men seem to be the focus of much of the film. The casting of both Margot Robbie and Saoirse Ronan as Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots respectively was a brilliant choice, and each excels at their role in portraying the complexity that permeates female relationships.
The narrative, however, does not play to this strong casting; instead, the film seems to linger over the interplay between the male characters, none of whom are particularly memorable aside from Jack Lowden’s Lord Darnley, whose pettiness is captivating. The audience is able to see that Rourke was attempting to create this as a backdrop, but instead it seems to supersede the performances of the lead characters, and unfortunately, this is to the detriment of the film as a whole.
Rourke’s film does well in its portrayal of characters who do not conform to the gender binary as exemplified by Ismael Cruz Córdova’s David Rizzio and, like The Favourite, this film succeeds in portraying characters and sexual relationships that are not heteronormative. In this, it thrives at subtly guiding the audience through the dynamics of sexual relationships and the surrounding politics in a time when this would not have been tolerated publicly. This technique, if applied to the whole film would have strengthened it considerably.
This film could have shown the strength of female characters and excelled at demonstrating the power of female relationships and stories; instead, we see yet another historical film that centres around male power struggle, which is certainly not a theme we need more of in modern cinema.