‘Mary’ takes on the patriarchy
Actresses pull out the stops in real battle royal
Two crazy-good actresses and a modern political resonance rule in the 16th-century period drama “Mary Queen of Scots,” even if the film doesn’t go all in on historical accuracy.
Director Josie Rourke’s deep dive into royal intrigue (eeeE; rated R; in theaters Friday in New York and Los Angeles, expands to additional cities Dec. 21) centers on a pair of queens playing a game seemingly rigged, thanks to rampant misogyny.
Both Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan), the Scottish monarch who’s widowed at 18, and Queen Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie) of England have to navigate issues of marriage, children and religion while being attacked on all sides by guys who just want to strip them of their power.
The film begins with Mary walking to the chopping block, an omen that her story isn’t going to end well. After the death of her husband, King Francis II of France, she has returned to a Scotland full of Protestants – led by the vicious John Knox (David Tennant) – who aren’t overly pleased to have a Catholic queen.
Fierce and confident, Mary’s not in a big rush to remarry – more of a priority is reaching out to her cousin Elizabeth and finding an alliance with a woman she considers a “sister” (Mary herself has a legitimate claim to the English throne), so “that we might resume our destinies.” Elizabeth is just as embattled, under constant pressure to produce a male heir and also insecure when it comes to Mary’s status and beauty, especially after a bout of smallpox leaves her face deeply scarred.
Each queen’s court (read: a bunch of dudes) stirs up resentment to keep them at odds, and sinister dealings and betrayals galore result when Mary decides to marry an Englishman, Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden), in order to have a baby who could in theory unite the divided England and Scotland.
If all this sounds like an old-school version of “House of Cards,” it’s because the Netflix show’s creator, Beau Willimon, wrote the “Mary” script, which is slow in the early going but takes a compelling turn as the various men move against their queens, be it shadowy or salaciously. There is a definite modern relevance in its exploration of the centuries-long, male-dominated political world: Mary isn’t a stand-in for Hillary Clinton, but when Knox rouses the rabble against their queen with shouts of “Death to her!” they might as well be chanting “Lock her up.”
As a theater director making her first film, Rourke gets superb performances from her two lead actresses: Ronan is as strong as usual as a royal spitfire who’s hard to break, though Robbie has the showier, more fascinating part.
As a follow-up to last year’s Oscarnominated take on Tonya Harding in “I Tonya,” Robbie is equally impressive as the complex Elizabeth, a woman wracked with internal insecurity but just as tough as her cousin when riled.
Saoirse Ronan plays Mary Stuart, who finds tumult when she returns to rule Scotland.