'Mary Queen of Scots': Film Review | AFI 2018

A spirited and timely spin on a much-told story.
12/7/2018

Saoirse Ronan stars in the titular role and Margot Robbie plays Queen Elizabeth in Josie Rourke's period drama, written by Beau Willimon and premiering at AFI Fest.

Beau Willimon hopscotches from a fictional house of cards to an historical game of thrones in Mary Queen of Scots, a spirited feminist take on the oft-dramatized tug-of-war between two 16th century British queens. For nearly 500 years, writers have conveniently ignored the fact that the two cousins never actually met in order to deliver the longed-for dramatic goods and Willimon is no exception, as he and first-time director Josie Rourke stir the juicy royal rivalry while also playing up their female solidarity in the face of male power plays and religious shenanigans.

Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie shine in this exceedingly of-the-political-moment telling of a compelling story, which will compete with the more outrageous and unruly The Favourite for the favors of year-end viewers hot for unbound ruling class yarns.

The ultimately sorry and tragic tale of these two smart women, both of whom had plausible if problematic claims on the English throne, has been put on screens big and small a number of times, most famously in 1936 with Katharine Hepburn starring as Mary of Scotland for director John Ford, with Florence Eldridge as Elizabeth; in Mary, Queen of Scots, with Vanessa Redgrave and Glenda Jackson pairing off for director Charles Jarrott in 1971; and in 2007 when Cate Blanchett and Samantha Morton teamed for director Shekhar Kapur in Elizabeth: The Golden Age. Little seen was a 2013 Mary Queen of Scots by Swiss director Thomas Imbach with Camille Rutherford in the title role.

In addition to providing ripe roles for the two lead actresses, the new film serves as the big-screen directorial debut for Rourke, the artistic director of London's renowned Donmar Warehouse theater company. Further luster is provided by its source material, John Guy's Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart, which won the 2004 Whitbread Prize for biography, and cinematographer John Mathieson, who shot five films in a row for Ridley Scott beginning with Gladiator and acquits himself on the same level here.

It's very often the case that an historical film, play or book reveals as much about the era in which it was written as it does about the subject of the work itself, and that is certainly the case with this Mary. Not only are the two royal women portrayed as sisterly soulmates by virtue of the supreme tests they confront in dealing with the often treacherous and almost uniformly disappointing men who surround them — but certainly never have the sexual preferences of some of the men in this lions' den, particularly those of Mary's handsome but callow husband (Jack Lowden), been so explicitly dwelled upon. Similarly, it's something new for Mary's circle in particular and 16th century Scotland in general to be pointedly portrayed as multi-racial. But nothing has changed with the characterization of the biggest villains: They're the religious fanatics.

Be all that as it may, Willimon knows nothing if not how to stir a political pot to tasty extremes based on his years masterminding Netflix's House of Cards. First and foremost he brings Mary to life as a young lady blessed with flaming-haired good looks, a fine mind but sometimes uncertain judgment. The respective women's royal lineages were legitimate but clouded, Mary as the senior descendant of the late Henry VIII's elder sister as well as the daughter of James V (she was born six days before he died) and Elizabeth as the daughter of Henry and Anne Boleyn, whom the king had executed when the girl was 2. The history is complicated, but Mary was sent as a youngster to France and became the Catholic Queen of France and Scotland, while Elizabeth became the Protestant Queen of England.

Barring an unheard of extension of good will toward man (and woman) and the unimaginable obliteration of religious rivalry, this situation cannot endure. It does for a little while after a teenage Mary returns to Scotland and sees no reason why she and her cousin can't co-exist under a “two kingdoms united” arrangement. But then the troublesome men launch their intrigues, with arch-conservative Scottish Catholics railing against Mary's laissez-faire attitude toward religious affiliation and Elizabeth contriving to place her handsome stalwart supporter Lord Dudley (Joe Alwyn) in Mary's court.

For a writer of Willimon's experience and expertise at juggling many characters and plotlines, too many scenes here are baldly expository in nature. The golden rule in such matters is to show, not tell, and while the dialogue exchanges are well charged, it sometimes feels like the scribe is taking the easy way out as he navigates through what went wrong for Mary.

Director Rourke exhibits confidence and enthusiasm in dealing with such juicy material in the company of her two outstanding young actresses. Playing a teenager who could scarcely be more different than the modern one she portrayed in her last film, Lady Bird, Ronan shows off an entirely different set of skills here as a young regent. Mary's fatal flaw may lie in a certain complacency about her position in life, as if her birthright assures her of her status come what may.

Elizabeth, who turns up only sporadically, lacks none of the ruthlessness required of a monarch determined to stay on top regardless. Attractive in her younger years, she at 29 contracted smallpox that severely scarred her face, spurring her use of ever-thicker skin whitener that led to skin poisoning and hair loss, the terrible results of which are vividly displayed.

For their fictional one-time meeting, Rourke and her designers have devised a dramatic yet nearly ethereal setting in a remote cabin festooned with veils and drapes through which the two women move as they speak, catching only fleeting glimpses of one another at first. They insist upon their sisterly bond, Mary saying that she should have followed Elizabeth's example and not borne any children, Elizabeth allowing that, “You are safe here in England,” and that “I am more man than woman now.” The bonding between these two unique sovereigns is compelling, even close to moving, but Mary, in the end, perhaps wants too much, and is rather too convinced of her own importance, to submit to a compromise. We know the rest.

Ronan carries the film with fiercely individualistic spirit, but the one thing she can't measure up to is the real Mary's actual height — she was 5 feet 11 inches, which allowed her to tower over most women as well as men in those days. Robbie is tough and imperious as required but allows a human side into her performance that gives the limited role as much dimension as time allows. By design, none of the men can truly compete with the two boss women, except when they conspire against a woman who they finally decide stands in the way of their desired ends.

It's feistiness notwithstanding, Mary Queen of Scots certainly offers a more traditional take on historical melodrama than does The Favourite, which wallows in its own outrageousness to gleeful, if dramatically truncated effect. But there's a good time to be had with both of them.

Venue: AFI Film Festival (closing night)

Opens: December 7 (Focus Features)

Production: Working Title

Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Margot Robbie, Jack Lowden, Joe Alwyn, David Tennant, Guy Pearce, Gemma Chan, Martin Compston, Ismael Cruz Cordova, Brendan Coyle, Ian Harst, Adrian Lester, James McArdle

Director: Josie Rourke

Screenwriters: Beau Willimon, based on the book “Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart” by John Guy

Producers: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Debra Heyward

Executive producers: Amelia Granger, Liza Chasin

Director of photography: John Mathieson

Production designer: James Merifield

Costume designer: Alexandra Byrne

Editor: Chris Dickens

Music: Max Richter

Casting: Alastair Coomer

R rating, 124 minutes