“Spring comes, bearing fruit,” says Mary, Queen of Scots (Saoirse Ronan), announcing her pregnancy to the Scottish court. “Another Stuart, heir to Scotland — and to England.” “If it’s a boy,” asks a courtier, “what will you name the little king?” “James,” says the Queen. [Quick cut to her cousin, Elizabeth (Margot Robbie) in England.] “We cannot let her name her successor,” Elizabeth says. “It is not right.” Royal succession is the central issue for the two countries, and the two Queens, “joined by blood, separated by religion,” as critic A.O. Scott writes the NY Times.
Will the Scots accept Catholic Mary as their Queen? Can she and protestant Elizabeth rule separately on the same island? How do Mary and Elizabeth counter conspiratorial — and often misogynistic — men in their courts? Are they bitter rivals or, as they say, “sisters”? Find answers in “Mary Queen of Scots.”
As royal cousins, Mary and Elizabeth, Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie, are excellent, nicely underplaying their politically powerful, if vulnerable, roles. “I will be the woman she is not,” says thrice-married Mary of her unmarried, virgin cousin. “I choose to be a man,” declares Elizabeth. “Mary is formidable,” says an English lord. “We should marry her to someone loyal to us.” But Mary disavows religious and national differences. Before battle, she says to a protestant highlander, “If any of us die today, we shall go to the same heaven.”
Among the untrustworthy men surrounding Mary are her half-brother, James, Earl of Moray (James McArdle), her husband-to-be, Henry Stuart (Jack Lowden), and Italian musician David Rizzio (Ismael Cruz Cordova). Elizabeth’s court includes her favorite, Robert Dudley (Joe Alwyn), who is sent to Scotland to be a protestant husband for Mary. David Tennant is protestant reformer John Knox, founder of the Church of Scotland and unwavering enemy of Mary.
“Mary Queen of Scots” is feminist revisionist history, recasting Mary and Elizabeth as “sisters,” manipulated and betrayed by devious men. Director Josie Rourke and writer Beau Willimon bring Mary and Elizabeth together in the film’s last act. Through gauze curtains, they speak softly: “Be my sister; be my boy’s godmother,” says Mary. “I have no enmity with you,” Elizabeth says. “If you do not provoke my enemies, you have nothing to fear from me.” In fact, of course, they never met.
Rated R for violence and sexuality, “Mary Queen of Scots” runs 123 minutes. Dark and dense, it’s sometimes difficult to keep male characters sorted out. An adult film.
Two Queens on one island,
Which will own the throne?
“Mary Queen of Scots” or
Her son, when he is grown?