Two crazy-good actresses and a modern political resonance rule in the 16th-century period drama “Mary Queen of Scots,” even if the film doesn’t go all in on historical accuracy.
Director Josie Rourke’s deep dive into royal intrigue (★★★ out of four; rated R; in theaters Friday in New York and Los Angeles, expands to additional cities Dec. 21) centers on a pair of queens playing a game seemingly rigged, thanks to rampant misogyny. Both Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan), the Scottish monarch who’s widowed at 18, and Queen Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie) of England have to navigate issues of marriage, children and religion while being attacked on all sides by guys who just want to strip them of their rightful power.
The film begins with Mary walking to the chopping block, an omen that her story isn’t going to end well. After the death of her husband, King Francis II of France, she has returned to a Scotland full of Protestants – led by the vicious John Knox (David Tennant) – who aren’t overly pleased to have a Catholic queen.
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Fierce and confident, Mary’s not in a big rush to remarry – more of a priority is reaching out to her cousin Elizabeth and finding an alliance with a woman she considers a “sister” (Mary herself has a legitimate claim to the English throne), so “that we might resume our destinies.” Elizabeth is just as embattled, under constant pressure to produce a male heir, and also insecure when it comes to Mary’s status and beauty, especially after a bout of smallpox leaves her face deeply scarred.
Each queen’s court (read: a bunch of dudes) stirs up resentment to keep them at odds, and sinister dealings and betrayals galore result when Mary decides to marry an Englishman, Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden), in order to have a baby who could in theory unite the divided England and Scotland.
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