NEW YORK — Religion and politics make for a toxic brew in the highly spiced historical drama “Mary Queen of Scots” (Focus).
Taken as entertainment rather than a chronicle of real events, director Josie Rourke’s glossy adaptation of John Guy’s biography, Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart, is generally diverting. But the sexual behavior on display and the manner of its portrayal require considerable caution even on the part of grown viewers.
Saoirse Ronan gives a multifaceted performance as the doomed monarch of the title, by turns vulnerable and imperious, but almost uniformly unwise. The plot follows Mary’s steadily declining fortunes from her 1561 return to Scotland from France after the death of her husband, King Francis II, through her 1568 exile to England where her claim to the throne made her an unacceptable rival to Queen Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie).
Along the way, Mary weds twice more. And the sensational tone of the movie is typified by a scene in which her second spouse, liquor-guzzling Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden), spends their wedding night not with Mary but with her Italian-born court musician-turned-private secretary, David Rizzio (Ismael Cruz Cordova). Mary subsequently forgives Rizzio, telling him, “You have not betrayed your nature.”
Mary’s Catholicism and dynastic ties to the English crown made her a potential champion for her fellow believers who were being persecuted by Elizabeth. But her faith inspired consternation and eventually provoked rebellion among the predominantly Protestant Scottish nobles, including her half-brother, James, Earl of Moray (James McArdle).
Mary’s other adversaries include dour Calvinist church leader John Knox (David Tennant) and Elizabeth’s wily but odious chief adviser, William Cecil (Guy Pearce).
Rizzio comes to a particularly bloody end, the graphic depiction of which further shrinks the appropriate audience for the picture. Accordingly, only those open to gritty material should patronize “Mary Queen of Scots.” Others should stay at home and perhaps read a less feverish account.
The film contains some gory violence, strong sexual content, including aberrant and adulterous acts, graphic marital relations and rear nudity, a benign view of homosexuality, a scene involving menstrual blood, sexual references, a mild oath and a couple of crass terms. The Catholic News Service classification is L — limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R — restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
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Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.