With a story that is at once savage and thought provoking, visuals that are grand in all their execution, and powerhouse turns from Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie at its core (arguably two of the most talented performers of their generation), there’s a horde of satisfaction to be found within the confines of Mary Queen of Scots. That being said, the Beau Willimon script doesn’t always match the ferocity in which Ronan and Robbie ignite throughout.
As the Queen of Scotland, a young Mary Stuart (Ronan) – married at 16, widowed at 18 – defies the pressure to remarry and opts to return to her homeland to reclaim her rightful throne. This decision sets off a chain of intricate communication between herself and her cousin Elizabeth (Robbie), the ruling Queen of England and Ireland, who doesn’t take kindly to the potential loss of her sovereignty. The relationship between the two women is one that twists between sisterhood and deep-rooted jealousy, the latter emotion only exacerbated as the barren Elizabeth is unable to conceive an heir, an infliction not bestowed upon the more fertile Mary.
Under the direction of Josie Rourke, Mary Queen of Scots proves a fascinating tale between two dominant figures. Whilst Willimon’s script never truly moves beyond the expected, the stifling mentality of Mary and Elizabeth’s respective courts adds a layer of interest to their story (it’s near frustrating how little influence these supposed women in power ultimately had), which in turn fuels the performances from Ronan and Robbie.
Ronan feels like the perfect choice to portray Mary, the actress displaying equal parts vulnerability and vigour. There’s a heartbreaking sadness in witnessing her suffer in silence so not to reveal her weakness to the men that surround her. And when she takes on a suitor – Robert Dudley (Joe Alwyn) – her defiance in keeping up appearances is only highlighted more so when his true sexual nature is revealed. Much like her relationship with Elizabeth, Mary’s marriage to Robert is one that isn’t easily explained and hides more complexities than what she’s willing to disclose.
As much as this is Ronan’s movie though, it’s perhaps Robbie that delivers its finest performance. Whilst she’s given far less screen time than Ronan (I suspect many will be surprised with how little Robbie features), the actress commands in a beautifully layered turn as a Queen conflicted. There’s an evident desire to honour her cousin and form a sisterly bond with her, just as much as there’s harboured jealousy. As grand as the film appears on a visual level, the impact Ronan and Robbie bring to the film is undeniable, and the scene in which the two share the screen for the first time is masterful in all its nuance.
Though the film’s historical accuracy opens itself up to scrutiny, and its overall lack of taking any overt risks voids it of being as monumental as it strives to be, there’s no denying how beautiful and detailed Mary Queen of Scots is. Whilst it is occasionally flat when it comes to exorcising its dramatics, the superb acting on hand keeps this operatic cinema afloat.