Mary Queen of Scots may not be 100% historically accurate, but I don’t really care. When dealing with events and people who lived 500 years ago, we can forgive getting all the facts exactly correct. Hell, we have enough problems getting the facts right about our leaders who are living right now. What this film does particularly well, no matter what historians mightrgue, is that it is a crackerjack drama about two fiercely independent women making their strong voices heard in a world that was (and still is) manipulated by shady men. In its own way it brings aspects of #MeToo and Time’s Up to play in a way we never thought possible.
The success of this film version of the oft-told rivalry in this case is putting it squarely in the hands of smart women both in front of, and behind the scenes. Yes, it has been told cinematically before — most notably in 1936’s Mary, Queen of Scotland, with Katharine Hepburn; 1971’s Mary Queen of Scots, with Vanessa Redgrave and Glenda Jackson; and more recently in Elizabeth, The Golden Age with Cate Blanchett and Samantha Morton. Now we have the very age-appropriate and wonderful Saoirse Ronan taking a whack at Mary opposite the equally fine Margot Robbie as Elizabeth I, relegated here to more of a supporting turn but a very effective one at that. Behind the camera marking her first film ever is Josie Rourke, the distinguished artistic director of England’s famed Donmar theater company and a veteran of numerous stage productions. She acquits herself nicely in making this costume drama come alive for contemporary audiences in a way that quite frankly I was not expecting.
The screenplay comes from Beau Willimon (based on John Guy’s book Queen of Scots: The True Story of Mary Stuart), best known for his Netflix series House of Cards, which deals with all the behind-the-scenes manipulation and machinations of current D.C. politics, and he has found a way to make the same kinds of dynamics come vibrantly alive in a historical context here. And yes, you can count on a direct scene of confrontation between these two strong-willed women that reportedly never actually happened in their real lives but is dramatically necessary to get at the essence of this story and, of course, has been a staple in previous tellings. Like I said, I don’t care for 100% accuracy. I just want a story that does right by these women and keeps my interest in them and their travails of the time. You want to feel what it might have been like.
Ronan plays Mary, who was the Queen of France at age 16 and widowed two years later as England and Scotland are being merged, as it were. Robbie is Queen Elizabeth I of England, determined to reign over the new configuration even as she has to deal with the emerging competition from Mary, who believes she has a right to leadership duties, due to her own heritage. This is the crux of their complex rivalry, and it is complicated throughout by the secondary male characters not shown in the best light. They include Mary’s husband (Jack Lowden) and Lord Dudley (Joe Alwyn) who coincidentally also is lording around in another current period costumer, The Favourite.
Guy Pearce as William Cecil and Gemma Chan as Bess of Hardwicke also have their moments in the supporting cast, but this film belongs to Ronan and Robbie, both up to the task of a story where Mary is determined to overthrow her own cousin, risking everything to achieve her goals (the very opening scene tips its hat to where this is going, if you don’t know your English history). Ronan, who is only 24 but already has three Oscar nominations to her name, is resplendent in a role she understandably fought to play, and Robbie continues to show her acting chops in each subsequent outing, especially in other scenes where Elizabeth is stricken with a horrendous case of smallpox at age 29. It’s well worth seeing just for these performances. Max Richter’s score is aces, by the way.
Producers are Working Title’s Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner and Debra Hayward. Focus Features releases it Friday. Check out my video review by clicking the link above.
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