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Director Josie Rourke makes a very assured move from the theatre to the cinema screen in her feature debut, a full-blooded tale of personal and political rivalries told with wit, flair and passion. Like Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite, which inventively revisits the court of Queen Anne (albeit with a very different tone), the setting may be historical but the core concerns are utterly contemporary: a tale of two “sisters” – Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie) and Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan) – caught in the middle of a power struggle between England and Scotland, Protestants and Catholics, men and women.
We begin at the end, in 1587, with a candle being snuffed out as the Catholic Mary is led to the executioner’s block. From here we flash back to 1561, and Mary’s return to Scotland following the death of her husband. Her arrival, and claim to Elizabeth’s throne, alarms her heirless cousin, and sets warring factions in motion on both sides of the border.
On one level these women are polar opposites: while Mary is young, beautiful and forthright, Elizabeth oozes world-weariness, her face painted a frightening white, a clown mask that covers the ravages of the pox. “I will be the woman she is not,” declares Mary, proudly asserting: “I shall produce an heir, unlike her barren self.” As for Elizabeth, she chooses to be neither wife nor mother, preferring “to be a man”, calling her confidant Sir William Cecil (Guy Pearce) “the closest thing I shall ever have to a wife”.
Yet despite such differences, both queens are subject to the vicissitudes of men who see their gender as a threat. When Lord Randolph (Adrian Lester, nicely underplayed) asks: “How did the world come to this?”, Ian Hart’s conspiratorial Lord Maitland replies: “Wise men servicing the whims of women.” Elsewhere, a seething John Knox (David Tennant, as excellent as he is unrecognisable) brands Mary “a murderous harlot… Queen Strumpet”, while Elizabeth muses upon “how cruel men are”.
Taking its lead from John Guy’s book Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart, Beau (House of Cards) Willimon’s wry script cleverly intertwines history and conjecture, positing Mary as a wily tactician who outsmarts her opponents while seeking an alliance with Elizabeth – on her own terms. As for Rourke, she has cited films such as Thelma & Louise and noted the bond between Batman and the Joker when describing the female drive and “intense psychological relationship” at the heart of this narrative.
As Mary, Ronan embodies both the vibrant spirit and iron strength of her character. Some scenes, such as those in which she shares the close company of her ladies in waiting, have the air of a coming-of-age movie, full of youthful laughter and candid confession. Yet from the moment Mary strides ashore and marches toward Holyrood, it is clear that she possesses a steely resolve. (I was briefly reminded of action hero Milla Jovovich’s armour-plated Joan of Arc, leading her forces into battle in Luc Besson’s 1999 film, The Messenger.)
While Ronan is terrific, Robbie has arguably the more difficult role, conjuring an engaging portrait of someone whose position has made her “more man than woman”. It’s a credit to Robbie that Elizabeth’s anguish shines through the stony visage behind which she is increasingly forced to hide.
The supporting roles are well cast too, with particular plaudits due to Hart, who remains one of the UK’s most reliably riveting stage and screen presences. I have yet to see him give less than 100% in any role, no matter how large or small.
Cinematographer John Mathieson lends a painterly edge to the proceedings, contrasting bold sweeping landscapes with grand yet often imprisoning interiors, making striking use of the design’s carefully coded palette. With its fiery-haired antagonists, red becomes the colour of defiance – from the menstrual blood that drips into a pail of water to the scarlet dress in which Mary approaches her execution, unbowed.
Very occasionally the theatricality becomes overwrought – a meeting in a remote cottage beset by billowing sheets looks like something that would have worked brilliantly on stage but smacks of contrivance on screen. But for the most part this is admirably cinematic fare, buoyed by Max Richter’s swirling score, which seems to burst from the landscape, taking a regal textural note from Handel’s Zadok the Priest as it spirals toward something earthy yet metaphysical.
Source: The Guardian
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