Mary Queen of Scots makes palace conflict and betrayal captivating. Mary Queen of Scots unfolds like an engrossing chess match between the determined, Catholic Mary Stuart of Scotland and her indomitable cousin, Protestant Elizabeth I of England. Wise and wily, both queens know the personal and political hazards and sacrifices that come with being women sovereigns in a world of palace intrigue and, occasionally, murder.
Bookended by a dramatic concluding scene, the story proper begins with the widowed Mary, now a mere eighteen, returning to Scotland in 1561. Elizabeth will send emissaries and suitors; Mary will wed two more times, battles will be joined, and acceptance of two strong queens tested in this era that felt such governance unnatural. Confronting deception and betrayal, Mary and Elizabeth chose straightforward strategies: confront, resist, regroup, repeat.
In her feature film debut, director Josie Rourke, Artistic Director of the London theater Donmar Warehouse, presents the complex conspiracies in a lucid manner. Cross cutting at regular intervals between devious machinations in Scotland and England, the drama inserts outdoor scenes, primarily those set in the expansive Scottish highlands. The beautiful, vast terrain offers a welcome respite from Mary’s claustrophobic court interaction where most of the story takes place. In contrast, Elizabeth’s world is more restrictive emotionally as she refuses marriage, a ruler choosing to be “more a man than a woman,” as she says.
Based on John Guy’s 2005 biography Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart, Beau Willimon’s script emphasizes contemporary themes. As with Willemon’s House of Cards work, he addresses sexism, homosexuality and rape, independence versus loyalty, cowardice versus courage, religious radicalism versus accommodation and tolerance, harmony versus discord. It’s a heady and an interracial mix presented powerfully by Margot Robbie as Elizabeth and Saoirse Ronan as Mary, all but certain to get another Oscar nomination. Supporting actors excel: James McArdle, Adrian Lester, David Tennant, Jack Lowden, and Ismael Cruz Cordova, among others.
Mary Queen of Scots takes its most audacious historical liberty in a captivating meeting, presented surrealistically, late in the film. That allowed, this is an informative, entertaining drama not unfamiliar in today’s political environment.