Updated On: November 17, 2023 by   Maha Yassin   Maha Yassin  

Mary Queen of Scots (2018)

Mary Queen of Scots (2018): The Power and Pathos of the Rival Queens

Choosing a film that not only grips but educates can be quite the task, especially when you yearn for a taste of historical drama. Making a historically accurate, exciting, and gripping historical drama film is no easy job. There is a ton of research involved, a ton of fact-checking, and obviously, a lot of work […]



Choosing a film that not only grips but educates can be quite the task, especially when you yearn for a taste of historical drama. Making a historically accurate, exciting, and gripping historical drama film is no easy job. There is a ton of research involved, a ton of fact-checking, and obviously, a lot of work to turn this piece of history into a movie that excites audiences to see. It’s safe to say that Mary Queen of Scots (2018) succeded in all of the above.

Mary Queen of Scots (2018) is an intense delve into 16th-century Europe – overflowing with love, power and betrayal – it is nothing short of fascinating. To base the film on the relationship between two queens who are famous in their own right and show the audience their history more personally makes the film one of the best historical dramas we’ve seen in recent years.

This article will whisk you away through this dramatic cinematic retelling of Scotland’s spirited queen, Mary Stuart’s life and her tense relationship with England’s Elizabeth I. So, pull up a chair and pour yourself a cuppa; we’re about to navigate our way through regal rivalry and royal conspiracies!

Key Takeaways

  • Mary Queen of Scots (2018) is a historical drama about Queen Mary Stuart and her tense relationship with Queen Elizabeth I.
  • The film showcases the power struggle between these two strong female rulers in a male-dominated world during the 16th century.
  • Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie deliver captivating performances as Mary Stuart and Queen Elizabeth I, bringing depth to their characters and highlighting their intense rivalry.
  • While the film has some historical inaccuracies, it provides an intriguing glimpse into this period of history and explores themes of power, politics, betrayal, and rebellion.

Queen Mary Vs. Queen Elizabeth (Plot Summary)

Immersing ourselves in the Mary Queen of Scots world, we’re whisked away to the tumultuous 16th century. The tale scribed before us is that of Mary Stuart, brought vividly to life by Saoirse Ronan in a captivating performance.

The film Mary Queen of Scots delves into the dramatic life of Mary Stuart. At the age of 16, she became the Queen of France and was widowed by 18. Resisting the pressure to remarry, she returned to her native Scotland to claim her rightful throne. The film takes place in the 16th century, capturing the religious and political strife between the Catholic Mary Stuart and her Protestant cousin, Queen Elizabeth I of England. Mary’s endeavour to overthrow Elizabeth leads to her being imprisoned and eventually facing execution​​.

In 1561, upon the death of her husband, King Francis II of France, Mary Stuart, at nineteen, made her way back to Scotland. Here, she was received by her half-brother, James Stewart, Earl of Moray, as she prepared to take up her position as the monarch of Scotland​​.

Her return to Scotland sets off a series of events that threaten the reign of Queen Elizabeth I of England, who sees Mary’s legitimate claim to the English throne as a menace. Throughout the film, both queens face betrayals, rebellions, and conspiracies, which highlight the perilous nature of their power and status. Ultimately, their choices and the ensuing political machinations lead to a tragic end for both women.​

The Different Facets to Mary Queen of Scots

Mary Queen of Scots weaves together several key elements that are central to its historical drama. The personal relationship between the two queens sets the stage for all the political and power struggles that they go through throughout the movie. Despite being cousins, they have different religious upbringings. While that is the fuse that starts the flame, it is definitely not the only thing that came between them.

Political Intrigue

The core of the film’s plot is the intense political rivalry between Mary Stuart and Elizabeth I, each queen guarding her power against perceived threats. Political machinations, including alliances and betrayals, are a persistent theme, showcasing the precarious nature of monarchical rule in the era.

Religious Conflict

The religious divide between Protestant Elizabeth and Catholic Mary adds layers of complexity to their conflict. This element is personal and national, as it reflects the broader sectarian tensions of the time, influencing alliances and enmities both domestically and abroad.

Gender and Power

The gender dynamics are particularly pronounced as both Mary and Elizabeth navigate leadership in a male-dominated society. The film explores how their courts and subjects scrutinise and often undermine their decisions. Their gender affects how they must assert their authority and deal with the pressure to marry and produce an heir. Mary Queen of Scots can definitely be considered a feminist movie when it comes to discussing women’s power in the 16th century.

Personal vs. Political Identity

Mary’s personal desire to return to Scotland and lead as a rightful queen is at odds with the political reality of the time, which is marked by power struggles and the need for strategic marriages. Elizabeth’s political identity also clashes with her personal desires, as depicted in her relationships and her reluctance to name a successor.

Legitimacy and Succession

The question of legitimate rule is a recurring element. Mary’s claim to the English throne by virtue of her bloodline directly threatens Elizabeth’s rule. The legitimacy of their power is a central issue that drives the plot forward and ultimately leads to Mary’s downfall.

Tragedy and Fate

The tragic arc of Mary Stuart is a key element of the plot. Despite her ambition and resilience, she is eventually imprisoned and executed. This trajectory is steeped in the classical sense of tragedy, where the protagonist’s fall is both fated and a result of their own choices.

Mary Queen of Scots is a film rich with dramatic plot elements, all intertwined to portray the intricate tapestry of historical events, character dynamics, and the ultimate tragedy of its central figures. It is a narrative that provides a deep dive into the tumultuous period of history with an empathetic yet critical examination of its characters’ lives and legacies.

The Creative Elements Behind Mary Queen of Scots

Mary Queen of Scots is replete with creative elements that bring the historical drama to life, blending factual narrative with artistic expression to engage the audience.

Costuming and Makeup

The film’s costumes play a crucial role in establishing the period, the characters’ social status, and their personalities and transformations throughout the film. Elizabeth’s evolution from a vibrant young queen to a scarred and almost mask-like visage and Mary’s transition from French fashions to the more austere garb of a Scottish monarch are visual metaphors for their internal journeys.

Production Design

The film’s sets authentically recreate 16th-century life, from the cold, imposing stone castles to the rustic Scottish landscapes. These settings not only serve as backdrops but also as extensions of the character’s inner worlds. The contrast between Mary’s private chambers’ intimate, warm lighting and Elizabeth’s court’s stark, grand halls underscores their differing reigns and isolation.


The cinematography employs a variety of techniques to enhance the narrative. Close-ups are often used to convey the emotional states of the queens, while wide shots emphasize the vast political landscapes they navigate. The film also uses colour palettes effectively, with cooler tones for Scotland and warmer tones for England, highlighting the contrast between Mary and Elizabeth’s realms.

Score and Soundtrack

The musical score underpins the emotional and dramatic beats of the film. It swells during moments of triumph and wanes during moments of introspection or defeat, guiding the viewer’s emotional response to the story.

Narrative Structure

The screenplay takes creative liberties to condense complex historical events into a coherent narrative, focusing on pivotal moments that define Mary and Elizabeth’s relationship. Flashbacks and non-linear storytelling are used to provide context and depth to the characters, contributing to a layered understanding of their motivations.

Character Development

The film offers a nuanced portrayal of its two main characters. Rather than casting one as the hero and the other as the villain, it presents both Mary and Elizabeth as multifaceted individuals. Their strengths, vulnerabilities, and flaws are explored, allowing for a more human and relatable depiction of these historical figures.


The script infuses the historical language of the era with a contemporary edge, making it accessible to modern audiences while maintaining a sense of authenticity. The dialogue often carries weighty governance, womanhood, and morality themes, serving as the verbal battleground for the queens’ ideological conflicts.

Mary Queen of Scots is a tapestry of creative elements, from visual to narrative, all working in concert to depict the historical saga with vibrancy and relevance. It is a testament to the filmmakers’ vision and their ability to craft a compelling story from the threads of history, enriched by the many creative choices that make the film a work of art as much as a retelling of historical events.

The Royal Court of Mary Queen of Scots (Cast and Crew)

Mary Queen of Scots was directed by Josie Rourke in her directorial debut. The screenplay was written by Beau Willimon and is based on John Guy’s biography Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart. The film stars Saoirse Ronan as Mary, Queen of Scots, and Margot Robbie as her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I. Other notable cast members include Jack Lowden, Joe Alwyn, David Tennant, and Guy Pearce, each in supporting roles that contribute to the depth and dynamics of the narrative

Saoirse Ronan as Mary, Queen of Scots

Saoirse Ronan‘s portrayal of Mary is described as fiery, capturing the Scottish queen’s ambition and steadfastness. Ronan brings a mischievous energy to Mary, depicted in moments like a cunning smile that conveys her character’s wit and strategic mind. Her performance has been noted for its vitality and depth, breathing life into a historical figure who has been portrayed many times before yet making the role distinctively her own with a fresh interpretation.

Margot Robbie as Queen Elizabeth I

Mary Queen of Scots (2018): The Power and Pathos of the Rival Queens

Margot Robbie‘s take on Elizabeth I is equally lauded for its emotional complexity. Robbie presents a regal yet deeply conflicted queen, a ruler whose facade of strength often wavers under the pressures of her position and her fraught relationship with Mary. The subtlety of Robbie’s performance—captured in small, precise gestures and expressions—adds layers to a character who must navigate the treacherous waters of leadership while contending with the expectations and machinations of a male-dominated court.

Josie Rourke (Director)

With her background in theatre, Director Josie Rourke brought a distinct directorial perspective to Mary Queen of Scots, her feature film debut. Her stage experience shines through in her meticulous planning of every scene, where each gesture and look is imbued with intention and significance. Rourke’s theatrical eye is evident in the film’s precise and thrilling scenes, which capture the high-stakes political manoeuvring and the actors’ nuanced performances. Her handling of the historical narrative demonstrates a keen awareness of contemporary themes, contributing to a fresh and relevant portrayal of the iconic queens.

The Historical Accuracy of Mary Queen of Scots

Any history buff will be curious to see how historically accurate the Mary Queen of Scots is. While the movie captures some key events and themes from Mary Stuart’s life and her rivalry with Queen Elizabeth I, inconsistencies and artistic liberties are also taken.

One of the most significant deviations from historical facts is the dramatic face-to-face meeting between Mary and Elizabeth, which never occurred in real life. The two queens never met and maintained their relationship through correspondence. The film also suggests a degree of camaraderie between the two monarchs that is not supported by historical evidence; Elizabeth harboured a sense of jealousy towards Mary, who had successfully married and produced an heir, while Elizabeth herself had not. When Mary abdicated and sought refuge in England, she was met not with an open hand but with imprisonment, which lasted until her execution 19 years later.

Despite these historical inaccuracies, the movie does provide an interesting glimpse into the power struggle between these two queens during this turbulent period in Scottish history.

Critical and Audience Reception

The critical and audience reception of Mary Queen of Scots varied greatly. Critics praised the performances of Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie and the stunning production design. However, some disagreed with certain historical inaccuracies in the film. Despite mixed reviews, it was a box office success and resonated with many viewers who appreciated its feminist message and portrayal of an overlooked historical chapter in world history.

Box Office Performance

Mary Queen of Scots had a mixed box office performance. While it didn’t become a blockbuster hit, it did manage to earn back its production budget and make some profit. The movie attracted both critical acclaim and audience attention due to its historical subject matter and the performances of Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie. It may not have been a huge commercial success, but it impressed those who watched it.

Critical Acclaim and Awards

Mary Queen of Scots garnered a mixture of critical responses and notable recognitions in the award circuits. The film was particularly praised for the standout performances of Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie and the costume design celebrated for its historical richness and detail. Despite the commendation for these elements, the film faced criticism for its screenplay and historical inaccuracies that diverged from the recorded events of the era​​.

In the awards arena, Mary Queen of Scots received a nomination for Best Costume Design & Makeup at the 2018 Academy Awards, acknowledging the film’s achievements in creating an authentic visual portrayal of the period​. The German Film- and Media Review also awarded it the Jury Prize, granting it the “Highly Recommended” Seal of Approval in 2018, which speaks to its reception by certain critical bodies​​. These acknowledgements reflect a recognition of the film’s creative successes despite its varied critical reception.

In conclusion, the film Mary Queen of Scots stands as a compelling interpretation of one of history’s most fascinating rivalries. Mary Queen of Scots may take artistic licenses, but it does so to forge an emotional connection with the audience and to reflect on contemporary issues through the lens of the past. It serves not only as a period piece but as a modern commentary on the complexities of leadership, gender, and power—themes that continue to resonate with viewers today.

What is Mary Queen of Scots (2018) about?

Mary Queen of Scots (2018) tells the story of Mary’s reign over the Scottish monarchy, her life in the House of Stuart and conflicts due to the Protestant Reformation.

Who are the main actors in Mary Queen of Scots (2018)?

Mary Queen of Scots stars Saoirse Ronan as Queen Mary and Margot Robbie as Queen Elizabeth. It also features other actors such as Joe Alwyn, David Tennant and Guy Pearce.

How does Mary Queen Of Scots (2018) show religion during her time?

The film shows the impact Catholicism had on Scotland when she was queen. It also explores clashes with the Protestant Reformation.

What happened at the end of Mary Queen Of Scots (2018)?

The movie ends with the execution of Mary, Queen Of Scots, which signifies a big event in Tudor dynasty history.

How historically accurate is Mary Queen of Scots (2018)?

The film has been praised for its portrayal of the period through historically accurate costumes. However, the screenplay did take many creative liberties in changing some events and adding others.

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