Theater director Josie O’Rourke’s biopic “Mary, Queen of Scots” makes for some titillating intrigue, whether or not its veracity is in question. It is based on the book “The True Life of Mary Stuart” by John Guy. The film is conventionally told but its solid performances, helmed by Saoirse Ronan, are compelling.
Mary Stuart (Ronan) is a fierce outlier. At 18, she is a widow. She is pressured to marry by nearly everyone but she refuses and returns to Scotland from France to claim her throne. She falls for her first cousin, the handsome but egotistical Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden). Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie) becomes incensed, knowing that the marriage could unite the two territories, England and Scotland. Mary wants to rule alongside her sister Elizabeth but she’s not having any part of it.
A rebellion stirs.
Presented as a kind of risque Masterpiece Theater, Ronan and Robbie make solid dueling queens. Mary is emotive and steadfast while Elizabeth is stentorian and somewhat reserved. She is well used to the throne while Mary is the rebel, fiery, transparent, and strong in action.
A highlight is Lowdon who is a scoundrel, terminally spoiled and irresponsible in the worst way.
Screenwriter Beau Willimon (“House of Cards”) gives the plot a swift accelerated feel, full of candlelight whispering and shadowed footfalls.
There are shades of the gothic too as Elizabeth is covered with bubbling boils and Rizzio (Ismael Cruz Cordova) unfortunately hides behind a defiant Mary. The film echoes “Elizabeth R,” which starred Glenda Jackson in 1971. Robbie dons almost identical white makeup with the electric red hair.
The film almost makes a conservative sibling to “The Favourite” with its focus on sex and betrayal. In this period drama however, the peccadillos are given a more staid treatment. The elixir of alcohol is to blame rather than amorality.
Elizabeth prides herself as a shockingly pale faced machine of royalty while Mary is all emotion and spirit. Mary is invariably in motion while Elizabeth is frozen still. It is no mistake that her face is white—she is ice.
Mary has the last word, going to the Reaper in a red dress. Though “Mary, Queen of Scots” echoes other period pieces, the final coup de grace has traces of Kafka: a resigned acceptance mixed with grim humor.
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