Hollywood is stuck in a bit of an awkward period. While the number of women behind the camera remains painfully low, stories featuring female characters are seeing striking growth. The recent explosion of the #MeToo movement shows that women not only have a voice, but are craving female role models, characters and stories geared towards them. It is out of this which springs Mary Queen of Scots. The period drama looks at the tale of the titular Queen through a well-crafted and unique feminist lens.
Mary Queen of Scots follows the story of Mary’s (Saoirse Ronan) return to Scotland after spending many years in France. The savvy young woman is ready to assume the royal powers she sees as her birthright, all the while butting heads with Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie), the monarch currently ruling over England, Wales and Ireland. Jack Lowden, Joe Alwyn and Guy Pearce co-star. Josie Rourke directs the film from a script by Beau Willimon.
In our #MeToo era, Mary Queen of Scots does exactly what it needs to do in crafting two interesting, flawed, and ultimately human leads in Mary and Elizabeth. Both Ronan and Robbie are at the top of their powers, and absolutely dominate as powerful and independent women in a time when ladies weren’t allowed to lead a family, let alone a nation. Rourke does a stellar job in framing the complexities of this challenging situation and building how Mary and Elizabeth each react to their unique position.
The 25 year old Ronan has already earned three Academy Award nominations in her short career, so it comes as no surprise that she’s stunning as the youthful and charismatic Mary. However, it is Robbie who truly stands out in the narrative. Her take on Elizabeth is more fragile than the powerful, past portrayals of the ruler. She openly struggles with her role, yearning to commit to the dashing (though bland) Robert Dudley (Alwyn). However, she repeatedly expresses that the throne has “made her a man”. As she lives her life surrounded by men, she’s forced herself to separate from the vulnerabilities of love, emotions and family. These are synomous with weakness. However, Robbie is at her best in these moments of vulnerability when her facade cracks. She craves everything Mary has. She wants it desperately, and in these moments, she taps into an incredibly relatable feeling that most women can relate too at some level.
The crafting of these two women builds to a powerful conclusion between Mary and Elizabeth (I won’t spoil, but tisk, tisk if you don’t know your history). There’s a tragic feeling of absence of control in the interactions. Mary and Elizabeth could make a dynamic pairing; however as the narrative tells us these are two women perched above a lot of men (who don’t like taking orders from a woman). Sisterhood is power. Mary and Elizabeth can’t be allowed to unite, and both queens seemingly know this. Mary Queen of Scots tells a savvy, but tragic tale about two drastically different takes on feminine power and how that threatens the patriarchy.
The boys struggle a bit to stand out opposite Ronan and Robbie’s dynamic performances. Most of the men range from bland to mustache twirling levels of villainy. The film makes the best use of relative newcomer Jack Lowden. Audiences might recognize the actor from a small, but visible role in 2017’s Dunkirk. Lowden brings a youthful naïveté to Mary’s husband Henry Darnley. He shares a definite charisma with Ronan and the two are incredibly likeable together. Darnley looses himself between his relationship with Mary and that with his father (Brendan Coyle). He’s young and moldable, and while he does some pretty terrible things as the movie plays out, it’s not all Henry, it’s everything going on around him. At some level, everyone is a product of their upbringing, despite even the best intentions.
Director Rourke makes her feature debut with Mary Queen of Scots, having previously worked in theater. Whovians might be familiar with her 2011 reimagining of Much Ado About Nothing starring David Tennant (who also appears in this film) and Catherine Tate. This is a stunning directorial debut, the strong story-telling and gorgeous visuals ranking alongside many of this year’s first time directors, including this season’s golden boy, Bradley Cooper.
While this is a historical drama, there are a number of elements which stray from historically acccepted facts (which I’m staying away from in this review). If you’re a person who gets mortally offended when history is tweaked on-screen, perhaps stay home.
Mary Queen of Scots establishes itself as a feminist film in a genre which usually isn’t kind to the ladies. Director Josie Rourke makes an impressive screen debut, crafting not only a beautiful period piece, but also an important and timely story. This is a movie which should be receiving far more talk than it is.
Mary Queen of Scots is playing in theaters around the country now.