Between “The Favourite” and “Mary Queen of Scots,” I’m starting to reconsider encouraging my daughters to pursue queendom as a career. It may be good to be king, but it’s hell to be the queen.
Two queens, in fact, in Josie Rourke’s engrossing biopic about the rivalry (and, at least in this retelling, secret sisterhood) between Mary Queen of Scots (Saoirse Ronan) and Queen Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie) in 16th-century England. They may be vying for the same throne, and ruling under vastly different circumstances, but they are both alone, surrounded by men who think they should call the shots.
The film orbits around two powerhouse performances by Ronan and Robbie, and is light on action but heavy on behind-the-throne drama. Screenwriter Beau Willimon knows political skullduggery well, having created “House of Cards,” and he dives deep into the machinations of both courts, where today’s rival may be tomorrow’s ally, and vice versa. The film also goes to great lengths to make both queens as relatable as possible to modern audiences, drawing explicit parallels with how women in power are treated today.
Elizabeth is secure in her role as monarch in London, but perhaps too willing to let her advisers, especially the silky-voiced Cecil (Guy Pearce), push into one decision or another. Mary, meanwhile, is a young widow who returns home to Scotland to make her own claim for the crown. That the two are cousins, with overlapping bloodlines, makes for thorny questions when it comes to the line of succession, especially if one of them were to sire a son.
The film proceeds on parallel tracks, with Mary’s story the more interesting of the two simply because she has so much turmoil to handle, with almost every man around her — including her brother (James McArdle) and feckless husband (Jack Lowden) — turning against her at one point or another. Ronan effectively conveys Mary’s conviction and cunning (as well as her recklessness), even though we know this can’t end well for her.
Robbie is known for more glamorous roles in movies like “The Wolf of Wall Street,” and may seem like an unexpected choice for Elizabeth — but then, she was an unexpected choice to play Tonya Harding in “I, Tonya.” Maybe it’s the expectations that need changing. Beneath the thick white face powder and prosthetics she finds the repressed, sad woman trapped within her own monarchy. When Elizabeth offers up the man she loves (Joe Alwyn) as a husband for Mary, reasoning that she’ll be able to control Mary that way, something dies inside her at choosing political strategy over love.
Rourke surrounds the two leads with fine British actors like Pearce and Lowden, although they’re not always recognizable in their period garb. I was most of the way through the movie before I realized that the actor playing firebrand Protestant John Knox was, peering out from within a forest of beard, former Doctor Who David Tennant.
An acclaimed theatrical director making her film debut, Rourke seems energized by the possibilities that working with cinema can provide. She especially loves to contrast scenes of Mary’s hot-blooded rule against the chilly reign of Elizabeth, a beguiling, tragic figure who says at one point that she had to become “more man than woman” in order to rule. At one point Rourke pairs the image of Mary, her bedsheets bloody from giving birth, with a shot of Elizabeth in the exact same position. Only Elizabeth never conceived a child, and the red between her legs is from little paper roses.
Willimon’s screenplay makes the connection between the two explicit in a climactic (and invented) scene in which the two women meet while Mary is on the run from her enemies. “Our enmity is precisely what they hope for,” Mary implores Elizabeth. The Hollywood ending would have shown Elizabeth and Mary joining forces and defeating their mutual enemies together.
But the historical record refuses to provide an upbeat ending for Mary or Elizabeth, and “Mary Queen of Scots” strains quite a bit to try to bring their stories to a neat conclusion. Still, it’s a well-executed (no pun intended) period drama that finds contemporary echoes for these centuries-old schemes.