Mary Queen of Scots is a crisply acted tale of palace intrigue, loaded with betrayal and sexual machinations. The feature film debut from renowned British theatre director Josie Rourke, Mary Queen of Scots is told from a distinctly female perspective. Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie light up the screen as powerful women surrounded by duplicitous men. Their competition with each other exacerbated by the scheming of acolytes. English period costume drama is rarely this entertaining.
In August of 1561, Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan), a catholic raised in France, returns to Scotland to reclaim her throne. Her bastard half-brother, the Earl of Moray (James McArdle), had been Scotland’s regent in Mary’s absence. Mary was cunning and supremely confident. Her return to Britain was seen as a challenge to her cousin, Elizabeth (Margot Robbie), the Queen of England. Elizabeth was a protestant. Her council of nobles, led by William Cecil (Guy Pearce), feared that Mary’s loyalty was to the papacy in Rome. Elizabeth had never married and was childless. Mary was a legitimate challenger to the English crown, especially if she produced an heir.
Mary and Elizabeth begin a long correspondence through their advisors. Elizabeth is genuinely impressed by her cousin’s beauty and intelligence. Both women had to have eyes in the back of their heads. The noblemen in their courts disdained female rule. Elizabeth is convinced to send her lover as a suitor to Mary, who could act as a spy. But Mary had other plans, setting her sights on another cousin, Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden), a nobleman with familial claims in Scotland and England.
Josie Rourke explores every facet of the queens’ lives. We see Mary and Elizabeth daily routines with surprising details. A memorable scene has Mary’s handmaidens tending to her monthly period. The Queens were surrounded at all times by a bevy of handlers. These were regal women in a world dominated by patriarchal men. Mary embraced her status as monarch and was intricately involved in all decisions. Elizabeth disdained politics, but was furious when her advisors were thwarted by Mary. The tension between the two growing as jealousies are inflamed. Rourke’s experience as a theatre director is evident. The queens’ interactions with their courts are skillfully blocked and edited.
Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie breathe succinct differences into their characters. This is the essential dramatic crux of the film. Mary and Elizabeth shared a birthright and lust for power, but little else. Elizabeth’s refusal to marry and be beholden to a man was her greatest asset. Mary chided Elizabeth as “barren”, viewing the race to produce an heir as paramount. Their sexual liaisons intricately explored by Josie Rourke. Both women had the goal of supreme authority, but radically different methods to achieve it. Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie deliver spellbinding performances.
From Focus Features, Mary Queen of Scots is a fascinating power struggle. The historical drama, sex, and backstabbing are salaciously entertaining. I’m not usually a fan of this material, but was captivated here. Saoirse Ronan may get another Oscar nomination. She continues to be great in every performance.