Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie give performances fit for queens in the surprisingly timely period drama Mary Queen of Scots.
Ronan, a three-time Oscar nominee, breathes fiery life into the ill-fated Mary Stuart, who moves back to her home country of Scotland as the 18-year-old widow of France’s King Francis II. When she takes her rightful place as Mary, Queen of Scots, she sends the menfolk into a froth that’s perpetually lathered by the likes of fire-and-brimstone Protestant preacher John Knox (David Tennant under a beard almost as ugly as his diatribes), who can’t decide if he hates her more as a Catholic or as a woman in power.
Of course, Mary isn’t the only woman on a throne in the 16th-century British Isles: Her cousin is the Queen of England, Elizabeth I (Oscar nominee Robbie), and Mary writes to her “sister,” eager to form an alliance. Her message — “Ruling side by side, we must do so in harmony, not through a treaty drafted by men lesser than ourselves” – becomes the first of a series of letters the monarchs exchange.
The canny script by House of Cards’ Beau Willimon, working from John Guy’s book Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart, presents these two historical figures as magnificently, realistically complex women. Willing to mount her horse and lead the troops into battle at the first sign of insurgence, Mary is beautiful, clever, confident and passionate – strengths that often tip into weaknesses – while Elizabeth is a cagey politician, regally contained, often uncertain and soon scarred by a near-deadly bout with the pox. Mary is determined to wed and bear an heir, while Elizabeth declares “I am more man than woman now – the throne has made me so,” opting against both marriage and children.
Both monarchs are continually hounded, second-guessed and stymied by the men in their lives: Mary by Knox, her half-brother James, Earl of Moray (James McArdle), and her second husband, Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden), and Elizabeth by her adviser William Cecil (Guy Pearce) and her ambassador to Scotland Lord Randolph (Adrian Lester).
As rare queens in the age of kings, they are keen to forge a bond with each other and their countries, but suspicion, envy, ambition and the machinations of men scuttle their best intentions. Although Mary’s fate is well-known, helmer Josie Rourke makes the winding journey to the chopping block suspenseful.
A British stage director making her filmmaking debut, Roarke ensures that the production values are high, the twisty plot is clear and Alexandra Byrne’s costume designs are flawless. She brings over the theatrical tradition of casting without regard to color whenever possible, which allows talents like Lester and Gemma Chan (as one of Elizabeth’s confidantes) to get in on the costume drama.
Like many theater directors, though, Roarke struggles with the pacing of her first film, which hits a lull about the time a play would be getting to intermission.
But her performers ensure that “Mary Queen of Scots” feels vibrantly alive, and at a time when women are struggling to be heard and respected by men, sadly relevant.