MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS – Review
Of the two historical films opening this week, this is the one with grand, epic drama. Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie play dueling queens in director Josie Rourke’s searing MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS, a grim, mud-and-blood retelling of the great power struggle between cousins Queen Elizabeth I of England and Queen Mary of Scotland. It is a tale of two strong women set against a backdrop of the disdainful male attitudes of the era towards women, even queens. As alliances shift, powerful, ambitious men hatch plots that favor their side but not always their queen. The film’s dramatic exploration of the differing fates of these two queens in this treacherous milieu makes for an intriguing, fresh look at the history.
The film is custom-made as a powerhouse showcase for the considerable acting talents of Ronan and Robbie, both of whom fill the screen with fire. But audiences expecting a pretty costume drama may be surprised at the gritty, mud-and-blood realism of MARY, QUEEN OF SCOTS. The drama, particularly in Scotland, often takes place in dark, smokey halls, where one can almost feel the damp, or in rough fields where mud flecks opulent cloaks. Even in more-polished England, things can look raw, and the film does not shy away from the ugly side of life in the era.
That jolt of realism may be unexpected but this historical drama bucks expectations in other ways. Historians sometimes portray Mary as little more than a pawn, no match for Elizabeth, but director Josie Rourke takes a different tack. Instead, this film focuses on the difference in the courts surrounding the two queens. In this version, Saoirse Ronan’s Mary is fierce, arriving in Scotland glowing with promise and ambition. She is a young queen seeming to have everything in her favor, both to rule Scotland and to succeed her childless cousin to the throne of England. Rourke offers a fascinating, even feminist take on the differing fate of two queens in an era when men resented and resisted having women in power.
When young Mary Stuart (Ronan), newly widowed, arrives in Scotland to assert her claim to the throne of Scotland over her brother James (Andrew Rothney), she is a force of nature, an iron-willed woman set on power. While Queen Elizabeth (Robbie) is already on the throne of England, her younger cousin Mary has a claim to the English throne equally as strong or maybe stronger, which worries both Elizabeth and her advisers. Further, unlike the unmarried Elizabeth, Mary announces her plans to marry and produce an heir to the throne. Mary presses Elizabeth to name her heir but Elizabeth’s advisers are wary of rebellious Scots in the royal court too eager to hurry along that succession.
With a script written by Beau Willimon, the creative force behind “House of Cards,” big personalities, ambition, religion, power and nationalism all play a role in this struggle. The rest of the cast is as strong as the two leads, including Jack Lowden as Lord Darnley, Joe Alwyn as Robert Dudley, David Tennant as John Knox, Guy Pearce as Sir William Cecil and Brendan Coyle as the Earl of Lennox. The use of color-blind casting, more common on stage than in film, ensures the strongest possible actor in each role and a diverse cast that connects the past depicted on screen with our present.
The whole political intrigue of the era is ripe for drama, with its Shakespearean plotting and shifting alliances, but the fact that the story has two queens at the center makes it especially rich material for historic drama now. Some histories have Mary as a weak figure but Ronan plays her with boldness and verve. At the story’s start, Mary is a powerhouse bursting with both youth and intelligence as she sets out to secure her position. By contrast, Margot Robbie’s Elizabeth is seized with fear, intimidated by her potential rival’s beauty and youth. Although Mary repeated reassures Elizabeth of her loyalty, her insistence on being named heir sparks worries in the English court.
While the two queens jockey for the upper hand in this deadly game, competing interests divide the two courts, while the men in those two camps not always acting in the best interests of their own sovereign. Director Rourke explores the ways prejudice against a woman ruler influenced the flow of history and the fates to the two queens. The history is well known but this film offers a fresh look at events, and the two monarchs, through a different, thought-provoking lens.
With the standout performances of Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie, MARY, QUEEN OF SCOTS is a must-see for fans of good dramatic acting as well as history. It opens Friday, December 14, at Landmark’s Plaza Frontenac Cinema.
RATING: 4 out of 4 stars