The reigning queens of England and Scotland in the sixteenth century sit astride those strict dividing lines, never completely belonging. They’re hybrid creatures, both wielding incredible amounts of power, but desperately trying to downplay their gender, lest it be perceived as weakness. And aside from each other, they are completely and desperately alone.
It’s a sad twist of history that these two cousins and neighboring queens, who amazingly ruled some of the most powerful nations in Europe at the same time, were forced by circumstances to be enemies. Their feud is legendary. But the powerful tragedy of director Josie Rourke’s film lies in mapping out the thwarted possibilities, the many moments in which, had things played out just a little differently, these isolated rulers could have resolved their differences and become allies, rather than foes whose survival and victory comes only at the expense of the other.
Based on the book Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart by Dr. John Guy, the movie opens with what we know: On February 8, 1587, after nearly 20 years of captivity, Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, was beheaded on the order of Queen Elizabeth of England. But who were these women? And what drove them to such a permanent conclusion? That’s what Mary, Queen of Scots seeks to answer.
Rather than dwelling in the violence, the action flashes back to 25 years earlier, when a newly widowed Mary returns Scotland (captured in gorgeous, mountainous shots) after a lifetime spent in France. In her absence, her land has been ruled by regents: first her mother, then her half-brother James, Earl of Moray (James McArdle), he of the on-point leather headbands and smokey eyeliner. Taking back her rightful place on the throne proves more challenging than anticipated — Scotland is a mostly Protestant nation, and Mary is a Catholic queen. To make matters even more complicated, Mary has a rightful claim to the throne of England, ruled by her cousin Elizabeth, also a Protestant.
Both are capable rulers, but their approaches differ, in part due to their personal histories. Mary was essentially born to rule. Her father, King James of Scotland, died when she was only six days old — she’s known no other life than ultimate power and the respect she is owed as a royal sovereign. Elizabeth, on the other hand, was born out of strife. Her father, King Henry VIII, split from the Catholic Church in order to marry her mother, Anne Boleyn. When she didn’t give him the son he so wanted, he had her executed when Elizabeth was 2. Until her ascension to the throne at the age of 26, Elizabeth lived under constant threat, even spending some time in the fearsome Tower of London during the reign of her older sister, Bloody Mary. (Not to be confused with Mary, Queen of Scots. I know, it’s all very confusing.)
The two queens regard each other with both fascination and scorn. House of Cards writer Beau Willimon lives for intrigue, and their rivalry is constantly fueled by the men in their respective courts, who scoff at any mention of peaceful cohabitation. If Elizabeth doesn’t strike first, Mary will.
Ronan is phenomenal in this role: regal, but also human. Mary is a young woman confident in her power, and her ability to wield it. She hasn’t come home to be a pawn of her male relatives, and shows as much by banishing incendiary Protestant preacher John Knox (David Tennant, buried under mounds of beard and hair) during her first council meeting. But she’s also impulsive, and less politically shrewd than her rival to the south. (Knox goes on to fuel a rebellion against her, attacking her as a sexually voracious harpy, a narrative powerful women still struggle against today.)
Mary is a romantic, wary of having a husband control her, she still wants “to have it all.” So, when Henry, Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden), her Catholic Stuart cousin, comes calling from England, she’s fooled by his suave charm and enthusiasm for oral sex. In the end, her trust in the men around her, including her brother, and her would-be protector, the Earl of Bothwell (Martin Compston), is her undoing.
Robbie’s Elizabeth is more cautious. She too, would like to settle down with the man she loves, (Robert Dudley, played Joe Alwyn) but she knows that would be her downfall. Instead, she chooses her career over her personal life, remaining a virgin queen with ultimate power, rather than risking being owned and cast aside by a husband. “I choose to be a man,” she tells her chief advisor, Sir William Cecil (Guy Pearce). But it’s a bittersweet victory for a woman who’s also deeply insecure. In one heartbreaking moment, Elizabeth, face oozing with smallpox sores, runs out into the hallway shrieking, desperate for Robert’s reassurance and affection. (Robbie is fearless in this role, unrecognizable under makeup, scars and a prosthetic nose that looks suspiciously like the one Nicole Kidman wore in The Hours.)
Rourke’s theater background (she directed Tom Hiddleston in Coriolanus) effectively roots the story in contained, quiet moments. Rather than getting swept up in the big picture, she hones in on these womens’ inner lives. Some of the most powerful moments are the intimate scenes between Mary and her ladies in waiting, who dress and bathe her, whispering confessions and secrets in the dark. Likewise, Elizabeth’s relationship with her confidant, Bess of Hardwicke (Gemma Chan), is a welcome respite from the constant strain and pretense of court life. (IThe Crazy Rich Asians star is one of many people of color cast in roles that would usually automatically go to white actors. Mary, Queen of Scots is a great example of a film that makes a big push for diversity without making a big deal about it.)
There’s never any question as to whom is at the center of this story — during a one fraught sexual confrontation with Darnley, the camera remains fixed on Mary’s face, assessing her reactions, and Ronan more than delivers. In a sea of men clad in black, she and Elizabeth stand out as bright, colorful figures, always drawing the viewer’s eye to them.
Robbie and Ronan only share one scene together, during a secret meeting that historians debate ever took place. It’s the climax of the film, one last gasp at a truce that they know can’t happen. By that point, they’re both too far gone on their own paths: Mary (still a little too beautiful) is desperate and defeated; Elizabeth has morphed into the white faced, be-wigged figure that would be her trademark. (Alexandra Byrne’s costumes are gorgeous, but it’s the dramatic, clown-like makeup that really steals the show here.)
Aside from that meeting, I’m sure there will be plenty for historians to bicker over, including Mary’s tolerance of her secretary David Rizzio’s (Ismael Cruz Cordova) relationship with her husband, and her and Elizabeth’s push to be friends. But the historical accuracy of the action feels less important than the overall statement the film makes on women and power: Much has changed in the last 431 years, but not nearly enough.