Mary, Mary Quite Contrary

Mary Queen of Scots
(UK, 124 min.)
Dir. Josie Rourke, Writ. Beau Willamon
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Margot Robbie, Joe Alwyn, Adrian Lester, Guy Pearce, Adam Bond, Jack Lowden
Saoirse Ronan stars as Mary, Queen of Scots
400 years before Nancy and Tonya, there was the rivalry of Mary and Elizabeth. One of history’s biggest grudge matches receives a hot-blooded and contemporary adaptation in Mary Queen of Scots. The film pulses with regal tension as Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie face off as the royal rivals in two powerhouse performances.

The young stars continue their hot streak with excellent turns captured in the heat of last year’s award season race when they were going toe to toe with Lady Bird and I, Tonya, respectively. While one can’t assume that the onscreen rivalry was fuelled by offscreen competition, especially since the actors only share one scene, it’s a lot of fun to interpret the climactic showdown between Mary Stuart and Elizabeth I within the context of the recent race as Ronan’s Mary calls Robbie’s Elizabeth “her inferior” and the Queen responds with Harding-esque vitriol. Battle lines will inevitable be drawn between the allies of last year’s Best Actress rivals. Don’t mess with Margot Robbie, folks.

Mary Queen of Scots, like I, Tonya, takes playful liberties with history in the service of good drama. It’s a ravishing historical(ish) drama perfectly tailored for fans of The Tudors and The Other Boleyn Girl. The film pumps new blood into the royal feud thanks to the fresh and ravishingly theatrical direction by Josie Rourke. (Who makes an impeccable feature debut behind the camera.) History buffs will surely cringe at Mary’s many liberties, but the film is very much aware that it is high-calibre entertainment first and foremost. Sensitive to contemporary social attitudes but also finely attune to the nuances of history in terms of her attention to detail and production design, Rourke adapts history to the present tense.

There’s a lot in Mary Queen of Scots that probably isn’t accurate, but Rourke is also making a film about two women undone by living in a vacuum. The most noticeable facet in which the contemporary seeps into Mary Queen of Scots is the admirable multicultural casting. Rourke fills out the ensemble with a diverse range of talent, ensuring that chambermaids, lords, soldiers, noblemen, and peasants reflect the demographics of the audience, which are much broader today than they were in 1560s England and Scotland. More significantly, actors of colour aren’t used for throwaway roles or stereotypes, nor are LGBTQ characters. They have engaging parts, albeit all supporting ones, with dramatic significance, which is rare for a period Brit pic. While the film certainly interprets Elizabethan England through a contemporary lens, it also injects aspects of power and control into the friendships and allegiances of Elizabeth’s court. Let’s not forget that Elizabeth’s rule was also one of great colonial expansion that created terrible systemic inequalities that continue to this day. The friends she and Mary keep in their chambers are, in effect, slaves.

The main thrust of the film’s political backdrop, however, is the division between Catholics and Protestants. Mary, a Catholic, has a legitimate claim to the thrown and Pope’s posse on her side while the Protestant Elizabeth has a shaky hold on power, especially since any misstep threatens a war along religious lines. The screenplay by Beau Willamon (House of Cards, Ides of March) weaves the religious power struggle with Mary and Elizabeth’s fight to rule as allies and foes circle the two women, trying to bend their ears and wield influence.

Willamon favours the narrative of the royal bloodlines as Elizabeth schemes to play matchmaker for Mary while maintaining her independence, growing masculinization, and ascension to the part of “The Virgin Queen.” The feud essentially boils down to boy trouble and fertility as Elizabeth recommends her boy toy Robert Dudley (The Favourite’s Joe Alwyn) to be Mary’s husband and spy for England from within Scotland’s bedchamber. Mary doesn’t take the bait, though, yet the mere threat that Dudley could prefer the younger woman and provide her with the child Elizabeth cannot have shakes the confidence of England’s Queen. Elizabeth’s unravelling provides Robbie with a plum opportunity to interpret the monarch anew, and her Elizabeth is far from the strong-willed warriors that Cate Blanchett and Helen Mirren created. Robbie’s Elizabeth is edgy, vain, and insecure. She has a shaky foothold on her sense of power in the film, and Mary Queen of Scots offers an enthralling study of the monarchy as Elizabeth becomes monstrously shrewd as her right to rule becomes secure. The hardening of Elizabeth brings about an ironic loss of innocence to the royal as she assumes the guise of the Virgin Queen by the film’s end.

Ronan, meanwhile, is every bit as good here as she was in Lady Bird or Brooklyn. She always brings a natural, almost effortless style to her performances, and her Mary Stuart is no exception. Whereas Elizabeth unravels, Mary naively commands her place in a castle riddled with Protestants and, worse, men. There’s a loss of innocence to Ronan’s performance, too, as Mary weds Henry Darnley (Dunkirk’s Jack Lowden in one of the film’s many great supporting turns), who appears to be a dashing Prince Charming but is really a Machiavellian misogynist. A brutal murder of one of Mary’s friends and confidants shatters her view of Scotland’s kingdom as morally superior to England and lays the groundwork for a plan that brings her eventual demise.

As Mary Queen of Scots builds to the Mary’s inevitable execution, Willamon’s script sees the royal rumble converge in a showdown that by all accounts never happened. (A fact the film acknowledges with Elizabeth’s line, “This meeting never happened.”) Their relationship existed only in letters and messages conveyed by consorts, but Mary Queen of Scots offers a climactic scene that sees the royals meet face to face for the first and last time. It’s a showdown that takes place in a laundry house and while it’s factually inaccurate, it is dramatically thrilling as Rourke stages the actresses weaving around starched white sheets as Mary tries to glimpse her cousin while Elizabeth, scarred by smallpox and bald from poisoning caused by her make-up, shields herself from view. Sunlight drips in through the small little windows as the royals tango in a head-to-head recalls the great restaurant scene in Heat where Robert De Niro and Al Pacino finally shared the screen. The scene sees a transferral of power from Mary to Elizabeth and Ronan to Robbie as the latter sees her opportunity and the actress steals the movie from her co-star. The history books don’t mention a tire iron, but they do note a hefty axe.

Mary Queen of Scots opens in theatres on December 14.