The great pleasure of historical biopics often lies in their visceral power to remind us that history is always personal for those who make it. From the Middle Ages to our first walk on the Moon — from Jesus of Nazareth to Freddie of Kensington — even the most mythic figures were flesh before they were folklore. Josie Rourke’s “Mary Queen of Scots” is an epic look at the intimate frustrations of two massively powerful young women who spend most of their energy navigating between who they are and what they represent.
This isn’t just a movie in which earthly human notions like sacrifice and self-worth shape the course of an empire; it’s a movie about those forces, and how they’ve always determined our fate. Alas, it’s also a movie that martyrs itself for its own ideas. While this flinty and forever relevant medieval drama perfectly embodies the struggles of its heroines, it also shares their fatal inability to reconcile personal strife with political strategy.
Written by “House of Cards” creator Beau Willimon (who adapted the script from John Guy’s book “Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart”) and beset by enough Machiavellian power games to make Francis Underwood’s White House feel like a playground spat, “Mary Queen of Scots” begins at an unstable moment in time and wobbles through the years that follow. The year is 1561, and Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan, both as good as you’d expect and also inevitably less compelling than she was in “Lady Bird”) is returning to her native land after being raised Catholic in France and being widowed by King Francis II at the age of 17. Technically a queen since she was six days old, the iron-willed Mary has every intention of returning to her place on the throne. Of course, that doesn’t sit well with the teenager’s half-brother, the Earl of Moray (James McArdle), who’s been ruling in her absence and assumes that his penis gives him the right to continue doing so.
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Strangely enough, Moray is not the only man who thinks himself endowed with a special claim over Scotland. Mary’s welcome party also includes a Protestant firebrand by the name of John Knox (David Tennant, playing the religious leader like a bearded, 16th-century Sean Hannity), who spreads vicious lies about Mary in order to convince his eager flock that a woman’s reign is against the will of God. The unwashed masses of the Elizabethan era: They’re just like us!
Worse luck for Mary, her greatest potential ally is also her most powerful rival: Her 25-year-old cousin, England’s Queen Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie, exquisitely tender in a somewhat thankless supporting role that sticks her with a nasty case of pox, an unruly wig of wiry red hair, and the worst prosthetic nose this side of Nicole Kidman’s in “The Hours”). The two monarchs have never met, but they share letters, ambitions, and a unique psychic understanding of what it’s like for a woman to preside over a patriarchy that would sooner choose war over compromise. Left to their own devices, Mary and Elizabeth might have peacefully settled the tensions between themselves and their countries; Mary even proposes the elegant solution that she would only inherit the throne if Elizabeth fails to produce an heir. Elizabeth is amenable, but her chief advisor (Guy Pearce) is not. Sabotage abounds on both sides. Battles are waged — heads are lost.
While Ronan and Robbie find ways to breathe new life into their respective queens, the film is far more compelling when their characters play off one another. Rourke, the groundbreaking artistic director of London’s Donmar Warehouse, never gives away that she’s new behind the camera, but her visionary theatre chops are most evident when she eliminates the distance between Mary and Elizabeth, entwining their struggles as if they were standing on opposite ends of the same stage.
Even without breaking free of the movie’s frustratingly staid period aesthetic (a missed opportunity, given the director’s background), Rourke finds a way to bind these queens together, establishing a psychic connection reminiscent of the one between Rey and Kylo Ren in “The Last Jedi.” Willimon’s script is a bit uncertain about how prominent a role Elizabeth should play in Mary’s story — Robbie is on screen for 25 minutes at the most, and sometimes feels like more of an isolated subplot than a key figure in her own right — but it’s fascinating to see how Elizabeth, despite her relative wisdom and popularity, is wracked by many of the insecurities that Mary is too headstrong to acknowledge.
She may be the more experienced woman here, but this young and unsteady queen is not the Elizabeth you know; she’s yet to harden into Cate Blanchett. On the contrary, Robbie plays her as someone who’s burdened by a birthright she can never surrender, sensitive to the fact that her father was one of the most violent men in history. She’s also in love with a courtier played by Joe Alwyn, though the film only hints at how painful it must have been for Elizabeth to offer her crush as a potential husband for Mary.
Ronan is the film’s clear lead, but she doesn’t get to enjoy the same kind of dynamism. As fun as it can be to watch her come of age in the Scottish court, Mary’s inner strength and progressive ideals offset by her teenage naiveté — this is basically the story of a girl who gives up her country to the first guy who goes down on her — there’s only so much she can do with a character who can’t enjoy the same freedoms she wants to bestow upon her people. To everyone’s credit, casting the Irish Ronan as the estranged Scottish queen actually strengthens that idea; her accent is strong, but still tinted with an appropriate sense of foreignness. Ronan also makes for a ferocious and believable leader, commanding the film’s two battle sequences with a uniquely adolescent fearlessness, but strength alone isn’t enough to save Mary, and it isn’t enough to sustain this movie about her.
It’s no surprise, then, that the best scene in “Mary Queen of Scots” is the only one in which Mary and Elizabeth are in the same room, the rival queens meeting on neutral ground for a tense heart-to-heart that Rourke has accurately likened to the powwow between De Niro and Pacino in “Heat.” The perfect opportunity for Rourke to indulge in her talent for staging, the imagined encounter — an emotionally loaded maze of eyelines and fabrics that also highlights the film’s ornate costumes and delicate sets — rescues the movie from its middle-section doldrums and pulls at both ends of the frayed kinship between its opposing figures. Worth the long and largely unspectacular journey to get there, it’s an incredible moment that resonates across the centuries, these two women trying to step out of their own shadows and harness the strength they see in each other before it can be used against them.
Focus Features will release “Mary Queen of Scots” in theaters on December 7.