Directed by Josie Rourke. Starring Saoirse Ronan, Margot Robbie, Jack Lowden, Guy Pearce, Ian Hart, David Tennant.
The Plot: Scotland, the 16th Century. The Catholic Queen Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan) returns home to Scotland having lived in France. She is the rightful heir to the throne of England, but claiming it will prove difficult. Her Protestant cousin Elizabeth (Margot Robbie) sits on the throne and will not yield it to a Catholic. They may be related, but their lives have taken very different courses. Whereas Mary is passionate and takes a healthy interest in men and having an heir, Elizabeth is an ice queen who lives within the strictures of her male-dominated parliament. War brews up on the homefront, but the real battle here is not between men on a battlefield. It’s between two young women and a throne…
The Verdict: The involving story of cousins Mary Stuart of Scotland and Elizabeth I of England has been told before, but not quite like this. There were aborted attempts at a new version a decade ago, with Scarlett Johansson fronting a film that was due to shoot in Ireland. The 2018 version of Mary Queen Of Scots is a revisionist take on the story, with a sharp feminist angle that is welcome. It’s no surprise to learn the Beau Willimon is behind the script. Having spent several years carefully crafting Netflix’s deviously brilliant flagship show House Of Cards, he fashions a similar story of political intrigue but from real historical characters and incidents. He brings a layered level of sophistication to the characters that might otherwise have been lacking in another screenwriter (except Aaron Sorkin of course).
Willimon’s script posits the story as a battle of wills between two cousins on different sides of the border, religious beliefs and personalities. They are strong-willed young women of royal power in a court environment that is otherwise dominated by older men who want to control them. Willimon doesn’t draw too much attention to this, wisely giving the story a modern edge by moving past such cliched gender battles. Debut director Josie Rourke furthers the modern touch by extending it to the colour-blind casting, a move in the right direction for diversity in cinema. It’s all done so carefully by Rourke that it becomes a film for now and isn’t the kind of dull historical drama that ends up playing in schools to bored children. This is real history come alive in all its passion, glory and domestic turmoil, channelled through Mary and Elizabeth.
Having spent most of the film apart, Ronan and Robbie finally get to share a scene towards the end. Not that you would know it from the fine acting on display, but it was Ronan’s first day on set and Robbie’s last. It’s a terrific scene, all about what brought these characters to this desperate point in their lives. Both of them do sterling work on their own of course. Robbie cakes herself in make-up, but still gets through that brittle façade of Elizabeth to portray a woman trapped on her own throne. Ronan is fiery and fearsome, portraying a woman totally in control of her emotions and actions. It’s a performance of remarkable depth and range, continuing Ronan’s ascent to become the Irish Cate Blanchett.
For a first-time director, Rourke shows a powerful command of the script, actors and her camera. While there are scenic locations used throughout, the real landscape here is on the faces of her two leads which she utilises for maximum dramatic impact. It’s only proper that a woman should tell the story of these two women, but the feminist angle doesn’t become off-putting. Instead, it becomes empowering and enriches the characters and their battle of wills. Mary Queen Of Scots is a regal triumph of smart writing, carefully calibrated acting and a thoroughly involving story that has resonance even today.