‘Mary’ takes on the pa­tri­archy

Ac­tresses pull out the stops in real bat­tle royal

USA TODAY International Edition - - LIFE - Brian Truitt

Two crazy-good ac­tresses and a mod­ern po­lit­i­cal res­o­nance rule in the 16th-cen­tury pe­riod drama “Mary Queen of Scots,” even if the film 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 film 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 confident, Mary’s not in a big rush to re­marry – more of a pri­or­ity is reach­ing out to her cousin El­iz­a­beth and find­ing 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 Netflix 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 definite 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 first film, Rourke gets su­perb per­for­mances from her two lead ac­tresses: Ro­nan is as strong as usual as a royal spitfire 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.

LIAM DANIEL/FOCUS FEA­TURES

Saoirse Ro­nan plays Mary Stu­art, who finds tu­mult when she re­turns to rule Scotland.

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