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AFI Fest Review: Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie Rule in ‘Mary Queen of Scots’ (★★★½)

In her superb feature directorial debut, Josie Rourke casts Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie as rival queens who are sisters doin’ it for themselves

Unapologetic is not a word often used to describe royal biopics but it fits Mary Queen of Scots like a well-placed crown. It has all of the earmarks of a classic piece: betrayal, conspiracies, rebellion. But at its center are fiery women fighting for their rightful place, queer representation and diverse casting that elevate this period drama and raises the bar for future ones.

The film opens with a reveal that would be as equally fitting on RuPaul’s Drag Race. Queen Mary (a transcendent Saoirse Ronan) is imprisoned and on her way to her execution. Standing before her murderers, her handmaidens tear away her drab dress to reveal a blood red gown of defiance and audacity. It’s an epic beginning to a spectacularly satisfying tale.

After that opening we rewind to 1561 as Mary returns to Scotland after the death of her husband, King Francis II. She enters into a den of usurpors and tormentors, not only because she is a Catholic in a country of Protestants but merely because she’s a woman. Led by the Church of Scotland’s John Knox (an unrecognizable David Tennant whose appearance you can smell), they have no interest in taking orders from a female and the colluding against her begins. She’s pushed into immediately remarrying; this time the handsome charmer Lord Darnley (Dunkirk’s Jack Lowden) with penchant for cunnilingus but also a secret. He’s the son of the Earl of Lennox (Downton Abbey’s Brendan Coyle), a man who plots with Mary’s own brother to keep her power at bay.

For Queen Elizabeth I (a stunningly compelling Margot Robbie) it’s very much the same. Surrounded by conspirator advisors herself including Sir William Cecil (Guy Pearce), she even acquiesces to sending her own lover Lord Robert Dudley (The Favourite’s Joe Alwyn) as a Trojan horse as a potential husband to Mary on the auspice of finding a compromise. Mary is unfettered, demanding she be named immediate successor to the throne, continuing a back and forth between the two women that can only result in an all-out war. All while two women race to produce a male heir to secure their spots.

For a feature film debut, lauded theatre director Josie Rourke shows incredible confidence. Details and execution are meticulous here yet never veer into being too staid or stagey. It’s not the wild extremes of Julie Taymor but Rourke strikes a smart balance between the history we know and the representation we want or even what could have been. It’s sometimes only through taking liberties that we can see another truth. When a story of women has only ever been told through the eyes of men what truth are we even getting?

Part of the credit for the success of Mary Queen of Scots as an absorbing and satisfying drama goes to yes, a man. Beau Willimon’s swift and smart adaptation of John Guy’s biography “Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart.” He weaves the threads political upheaval and fiery women at their center just as he did with Netflix adaptation of House of Cards. Except here there is no amoral female. Mary and Elizabeth are rivals but not even villains in each other’s stories. They are both pushed by the men that surround them to marry to bring Scotland and England together (but really so that the man can be king). Mary Queen of Scots strives for more than that and it’s a rare feat; that the two women can simply be in pursuance of essentially, a job. It reminds me of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s thoughts on feminism: We raise girls to each other as competitors. Not for jobs or for accomplishments, which I think can be a good thing, but for the attention of men.”

While the film sometimes leans in a bit too much to offering parallels between the two – Mary giving birth and sitting in a blood-soaked nightgown with Elizabeth in similar position with her crimson red rose arts and crafts spewing from between her legs – the examination of the women as equals, not to men, but to each other is one of its greatest strengths.

The costuming from Oscar and BAFTA-winning designer Alexandra Byrne is exquisite in its understatement. Unlike her Academy Award-winning Elizabeth: The Golden Age, Byrne chooses thoughtful visualizations that never threaten to distract from the performances. The same can be said for Max Richter’s gorgeous score and Oscar-nominated cinematographer John Mathieson. The restraint from all three in order to service Rourke’s vision and Ronan and Robbie’s exemplary performances is impressive. Supporting performances from Gemma Chan (Crazy Rich Asians) as Elizabeth’s main lady in waiting Bess of Hardwick and Ismael Cruz Cordova (Ray Donovan) as Mary’s GBF give visibility to a never-seen landscape of humanity in period pieces.

Much has been made of the meeting of Mary Stuart and Elizabeth I in the film as historically it never happened. But since the film has been a volley of emissaries it seems only fitting that the film culminates in a face to face between the two and boy, is it worth it. Mary Stuart and Elizabeth I have both been played by some of the most legendary and most lauded actresses in movie history: Bette Davis, Vanessa Redgrave, Glenda Jackson, Cate Blanchett. Their moment of confrontation is a fireworks display of bravura acting that’s rooted not in scenery chewing but in a desperation for sisterhood and to be allowed to be seen at their most naked and their most vulnerable.    

Mary Queen of Scots had its world premiere at AFI FEST and will be released by Focus Features on December 7th.

About Erik Anderson

Erik thanks his mother for his love of all things Oscar, having watched the Academy Awards together since he was in the single digits; making lists, rankings and predictions throughout the show. This led him down the path to obsessing about awards. Much later, he found himself at GoldDerby, led by Tom O’Neill and then migrated over to Oscarwatch (now AwardsDaily), headed up by Sasha Stone before breaking off to create AwardsWatch. He is a member of the International Cinephile Society, GALECA (The Society of LGBTQ Entertainment Critics), the International Press Academy and is the founder/owner of AwardsWatch.

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