In 1587, Elizabeth I signed the death warrant of her cousin, Mary Queen of Scots. With this feminist spin on the Elizabeth v Mary dynamic, theatre director Josie Rourke positions the two queens as women in a man’s world. Her movie’s subtitle could be ‘patriarchy in action’ – the point being that while you might be queen of Scotland, in the 16th century no one is going to step in when you’re being slapped around by your drunk husband. It makes for brooding, intelligent historical drama, faultlessly acted by a mix of Hollywood and theatrical A-listers.
So, it feels almost treacherous to confess that Mary Queen of Scots left me as cold as the execution axe’s blade – and that’s after watching twice to make sure I wasn’t missing something.
Saoirse Ronan as Mary brings her talent for complicating characters – making them feel like women with real, lived lives. Married at 15, Mary returns from France as a widow of 18 to rule Scotland – a plucky wildcard queen. She has a strong claim to the English throne, and a sly smile dances across her face when she hears that Elizabeth (Margot Robbie) has been struck with smallpox.
It’s moments like this that make Ronan so thrilling to watch, though the film tries a bit too hard to turn Mary into a carey-sharey millennial-friendly heroine – she’s implausibly relaxed catching her gay private secretary in bed with her new husband
Down in England, Robbie does her best, but Elizabeth is less a character and more a bag of eccentricities and neuroses (understandable perhaps when you think that her father had her mother bumped off). Mary’s youth and beauty – and later pregnancy – trigger her slightly older cousin’s insecurities.