The book “Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart” by John Guy makes a lot of assumptions that one can only wonder if they are true or just wishful thinking. If you are able to set aside questions of historical inaccuracy, “Mary, Queen of Scots” will prove an enjoyable, diverse experience for modern audiences. For Josie Rourke’s directorial debut, this film is quite an achievement. “Mary, Queen of Scots” explores gender politics, with ruthless men controlling both Mary (Saoirse Ronan) and England’s Queen Elizabeth (Margot Robbie) from the shadows, and how neither queen wanted the situation to turn out the way it did. Most of the events contained in the latter part of the film you have already seen if you saw “Elizabeth the Golden Age,” told from Elizabeth’s (Cate Blanchett)’s perspective. This film shows the other side in lavish, sweeping, yet intimate detail. Both Oscar-nominated actresses Ronan (“Lady Bird”) and Robbie (“I, Tonya”) keep the film grounded when Rourke’s inexperience as a feature director wanes.
Young, newly widowed, and Catholic, Mary returns to Scotland, where she is immediately rejected by her half-brother The Earl of Moray (James McArdle) and the other Protestant men of power. Desperate to secure her throne, she marries an Englishmen, at her cousin Queen Elizabeth’s suggestion, in an attempt to unite the two kingdoms, while still advocating that she be Elizabeth’s successor. Both women receive ill advice from their all-male courts, who fear women are not suited to make decisions of state. Elizabeth and Mary begin writing letters, planning to meet, but after Mary produces a Scottish heir, something Elizabeth has been unable to provide England, the tensions strengthen. However, Scotland remains weak and is further divided by the decisions Mary is manipulated into making.
In this version of the Elizabethan era, there is a multitude of diverse faces among the higher ranking court. Elizabeth’s most loyal and trusted female servant Bess is played by “Crazy Rich Asians’s” Gemma Chan (it was Abbie Cornish in “Golden Age”) and Ismael Cruz Cordova is cast as Mary’s secretary Rizzio, a cross-dressing Puerto Rican. These changes are found throughout the film and certainly keep things interesting and unique, however it’s likely to drive historians mad and confuse those who don’t know the difference. What this film does well is bringing drama and a younger audience to history they otherwise might not be interested in. John Guy has tried to defend many of the choices made here, but screenwriter Beau Willimon (“House of Cards”) takes things even farther to create more shock value than your usual historical biopic.
The exploration of gender politics is the most interesting element in the film. In one scene, Elizabeth, discussing aging and not giving England a blood heir, says she chooses to be a man. There are other moments I won’t spoil, but much like with “House of Cards,” Willimon relishes the ability to present roles outside the norm. A handful of scenes work to enrage the audience to a point where you hope that either queen or both of them would kill the conniving men around them. The entire story builds up to the moment where Ronan and Robbie share a single scene together. Both actresses portray a multitude of emotions and convictions in their short time together. “Mary, Queen of Scots” accomplishes a lot of different things in a two-hour movie. The discussions it will provide, and arguments it will incite, might even be of greater value than the viewing experience itself. Both actresses could crack the competitive awards races. The same goes for production elements in costume design, hair and art direction.
Final Thought: This isn’t your high school textbook version of history. Ronan & Robbie are superb.