‘Mary, Queen of Scots’ Film Review: Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie Make Worthy, Regal Adversaries

Josie Rourke, in her screen directorial debut, makes this historical piece more inclusive than most, bolstered by Beau Willimon’s smart script

Mary Queen of Scots
Liam Daniel/Focus

Period pieces have always been a bit bittersweet for me: Stunning costumes aside, the films rarely offer something to which a woman or a person of color can connect. Historical tales often cast women as bitter and evil, or soft and in need of rescuing, and they also erase people of color completely from existence.

Contrary to what far too many filmmakers seem to believe, people of color didn’t just drop from the sky in the past few decades. We have been here all along; we’ve fought in wars, built cities, have been part of royal courts, and lived in lands as peasants, soldiers and laypeople all over the world. And women have always been a spectrum of personalities, opinions and lifestyles, muted only for the comfort of the male gaze.

“Mary, Queen of Scots” acknowledges both the struggles of women and the fact that people of color have always been part of society, even during the Renaissance and Age of Discovery. The film also provides an intense, gorgeous and fully fleshed-out story of two queens, each born to rule yet still controlled and manipulated by the very men in whom they invest their trust and lives.

Adapted by Beau Willimon (“House of Cards”) from John Guy’s biography “Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart”, the film opens in 1561, when Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan) returns to Scotland after the death of her husband, King Francis II. Alhough Mary is the true sovereign of Scotland, the kingdom has been run by regents since her infancy, and she had little knowledge over the complex politics taking place there.

Her devout Catholicism, in a land mainly comprised of Protestants, leads everyone, from her advisors to her people, to cast a suspicious eye upon her. But Queen Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie) knows what it means to be a woman in power, and how even a throne can feel like a cage, but when it comes to dealing with Mary, Elizabeth doesn’t defy the advice of her all-male court for fear that her own people would turn against her and strip her of her crown.

First-time screen director Josie Rourke brings her stage experience to every frame of “Mary Queen of Scots.” In the theater, every second is meticulously planned out; every turn has a purpose; every moment, a need. She uses this knowledge to create scenes that are thrilling and effective, simply by focusing on the subtle details — a mischievous smile from Ronan, a wavering look from Robbie, small and precise, a process unveiling moment by moment. These minute details make Mary and Elizabeth’s long-distance battle of wits as thrilling to watch as any bloody battle scene from “Game of Thrones” or “Gladiator.”

Shying away from conventional history, Willimon’s screenplay devises a new narrative for the strained relationship between Mary and her cousin Elizabeth; the writer’s take feels fresh and much more believable, and in line with the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. It presupposes that the Queens not only cared for but also respected each other, but that their conflict, and ultimately Mary’s demise, was constructed by the men around them who feared women being given too much power.

This isn’t a far-fetched idea if you’ve kept your eye on politics, or even the workforce, over the past few decades. Women comprise over 51 percent of the population and yet, even after this recent election, we see a majority of men making decisions about women’s bodies and what rights they have over them. It’s the reason there’s still gender pay inequality, and why victims of assault are persecuted in the public square. It’s not a far-fetched idea at all.

Simultaneously, it’s refreshing to see people of color cast, not merely as background pieces spread about like bacon bits in a bland salad but given speaking roles and playing real historical figures. Even in recent period films (“First Man,” I’m looking at you), excuses of “that’s just how it was” are given to excuse the erasure of people of color.

Even in the 15th century, Europe had migrants from what is now known as the Middle East, as well as Asia, India, Sub-Saharan Africa, and more. Casting talented actors like Gemma Chan, Adrian Lester, and Ismael Cruz Córdova — the latter plays an unapologetically queer character, another important aspect of representation often lacking in historical films — shows a heightened sense of awareness and creates a more realistic world.

But back to the Queens: The contrast between Mary and Elizabeth is both focused and balanced, and neither the camera nor the script ever gives preference to either. The dynamics and power plays between the two are smart and calculated, and uniquely feminine. There’s a particular sequence that moves fairly quickly, where Elizabeth sends her lover (Joe Alwyn as Lord Robert Dudley) to Mary to propose that Mary take him as a suitor.

Mary, completely unfettered, and perhaps a little impressed, knows exactly the chess move her cousin has made, because it plays on what Elizabeth knows Mary craves the most — a partner with whom to produce an heir. Without batting an eyelash, Mary turns the play around on the famously unmarried and childless Elizabeth, which frustrates and, in a way, delights her. Those are some boss moves.

Speaking of boss behavior, bow down to Ronan and Robbie for taking two legendarily complex characters, who have been reborn countless times in film and television, and completely owning both roles. Ronan’s fiery Mary and Robbie’s emotionally complex Elizabeth truly reign divine on screen. History has not been kind even to powerful women, and “Mary, Queen of Scots” strikes a complicated balance of making sure both characters are seen not only as icons but also as imperfect, vulnerable and subjected to so much of what women in the workplace have had to endure ever since women were allowed in the workplace.