Following the breakdancing antics and wild palace intrigue of The Favourite could make any royal drama seem tame by comparison, Josie Rourke’s directorial debut Mary Queen of Scots shows a ferocity to match its two regal subjects. A surprisingly timely, feminist tale for two women who died centuries prior, the film stars Saoirse Ronan as Mary Stuart and Margot Robbie as her cousin across the pond, Queen Elizabeth I, and a battle for the crown that would consume them both. It’s a fresh, relevant take on figures who have filled up thousands of history books, and one of the most surprising films of the year.
How much of this story is historically accurate is best left to the historians to decide, but the source material, John Guy’s novel Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart, posits that Mary and Elizabeth were more than just long-distance rivals. You might call them frenemies, playing at friendship while keeping an eye closely trained on the other. Gorgeous production design nearly distracts you from the grim opening sequence as Mary prepares to meet her death at the business end of an executioner’s axe, but before the blade falls we’re whisked back on to the path that led to this moment. The young, beautiful, crimson-haired Mary has returned to Scotland as their rightful Queen following the death of her husband. It’s 1561, and after years spent in France she now faces resistance at home. Some of it comes from within her own ranks and family, while some is external. The fiery Protestant cleric John Knox (an unrecognizable David Tennant, under heavy beard) has a particular disdain, calling her a “scourge” for being a “woman with a crown.” Heaven forbid.
Some wish the teenaged Mary to abdicate her throne and cede power to her cousin, Queen Elizabeth, who is also facing pressure from men wishing to control her every move. Fiercely determined to remain unmarried, despite her handsome lover Robert Dudley (Joe Alwyn, everywhere it seems) by her side, Elizabeth instead decides to keep Mary in the fold, so to speak. Both strong-willed women keep close contact, or the best they can from long distance using one oft-frustrated emissary, but despite their expressions of love there is a bubbling tension as Mary desires to be seen as an equal, while Elizabeth sees her as a subject.
As the title suggests, Mary Queen of Scots is mostly about Mary and her struggles to retain power in a world dominated by cutthroat men. She finds a sympathetic ear in Elizabeth who is undergoing similar problems, but the two women are fascinating in their different approaches. Mary’s femininity is both her strength and a curse, while Elizabeth has practically shed every womanly instinct to be as aggressive and ruthless as the men around her. Both women are prone to giving in to their whims and acting out of impulse, sometimes with violence, but I like that Beau Willimon’s screenplay rejects turning either into a villainess. The effort to be sympathetic to both is a problem when bringing the film to satisfying close, however. Crucial events are ignored that would cast them in a negative light, and by doing so it causes the final moments to make considerably less sense.
Ronan is the film’s electric heart, with a commanding presence that would make us all want to bow down to her. It’s unfortunate she shares so little actual screen time with Robbie (whether Mary or Elizabeth had any clandestine meeting is in dispute) because they radiate strength and feminine power in the brief moments they do. Other aspects of the film are exactly what one would expect from a big budget royal period piece, such as lavish costume and production design only equaled by the makeup and hair. Rourke, whose background is in British theatre, shows a surprisingly cinematic touch with her big screen debut, suggesting a promising future behind the camera. While this may seem like well-worn material, Rourke shows with Mary Queen of Scots there is always a different perspective deserving of its time to rule.