Starring Saoirse Ronan. Rated 14A
Feminist retellings of the stories of historical figures—it’s a thing this holiday-movie season. But the latest entries that reimagine queens’ courts could not be more different.
Yes, both The Favourite and Mary Queen of Scots depict worlds where political men try to manoeuvre formidable female royalty. And both take liberties with history, showing the monarchs’ sexual sides and letting them stand up to misogynistic male powerhouses.
But The Favourite ratchets up the tensions between ladies Sarah and Abigail, and shows the entire palace as a surreal wonderland of excess. In Mary Queen of Scots, director Josie Rourke recasts her titular ruler and Elizabeth I not so much as the enemies the history books have depicted, but as long-distance BFFs.
She also plays things much more conventionally than Yorgos Lanthimos does in his brash The Favourite, skewing more to an earnest period piece bathed in broody Edinburgh greys.
To be fair, screenwriter Beau Willimon has a more complicated story to lay out. When the film begins, Mary Stuart is already a widow, returning to Scotland from France to claim what she believes to be her right to the throne—of England, as well as of her rugged homeland. Her bloodlines overlap with her cousin Elizabeth’s, but religion plays a complicated role in the struggle (Mary is Catholic; Elizabeth is Protestant), as does the threat of renewed war on the island.
What’s most central to the film is that Mary’s body is not her own. She’s born to breed, and men want to bed and wed her for power, by force or by seduction. And when rumours start circulating about her purity as queen, it spells disastrous consequences for a woman who dares to wield power.
It’s an exciting idea, but the plot gets complex and doesn’t always jell the way it should; a confusing crowd of courtiers abounds, and there’s at least one anticlimactic battle scene where you’re hard-pressed to figure out who’s fighting whom.
Still, by far the best thing about Mary Queen of Scots is its character studies. In some ways, Mary and Elizabeth look like mirror images of each other, with their heart-shaped red wigs—though, here, Mary prefers to let her real hair down for horse rides. But Saoirse Ronan paints Mary as smart, fluently French-speaking, and feisty; Margot Robbie’s Elizabeth is ravaged by smallpox, powdered up to hide the marks, and paranoid about how this beautiful young queen may threaten her. Mary is also the only person in the world who can truly understand what she’s going through, the Virgin Queen sacrificing her life to her reign.
A few side characters hold their own with the leads, notably Jack Lowden as Mary’s boozing, reckless second husband, Henry, and Ismael Cruz Córdova’s intriguing, sexually ambiguous spin on musician-poet David Rizzio, who once scandalized Mary’s court.