Two ruling box-office queens, Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie, go head-to-head in this richly packed but over-ambitious royal biopic, recreating the seven-year rivalry between plucky, fate-battered Mary, Queen of Scots and her determined cousin, England's Elizabeth 1.
Debut director Josie Rourke sets her handsomely styled feminist melodrama off at a reckless gallop, as Ronan’s rebellious teen Mary Stuart returns to claim her Scottish throne, discovering that Elizabeth’s (Robbie) political and military power threatens everything.
Rourke’s fresh, female-centred reading of Mary’s rocky reign creates a grabby snakes-and-ladders story of ill-fated marriages, sword-rattling skirmishes, and innumerable lordly betrayals. But its breathless, complex Tudor political machinations favour dastardly court plotting over plot clarity.
As Mary’s quick wits bid to inherit the English throne, and rebuff a controlling marriage to Elizabeth’s aristo toy boy Robert Dudley (Joe Alwyn), the crush of beardy black-clad courtiers delivering vital exposition can get a tad confusing. Scriptwriter Beau Willimon (House of Cards creator, so well-versed in treachery) also goes all-in with the historical factors.
So there’s hefty portions of Protestant vs Catholic scheming and Tudor vs Stuart throne-claims to be gulped down too. The aforementioned are crammed into short, intense and sumptuously staged scenes that dash from one harried queen to another in stony chambers or on heathery hillsides. This hectic back-and-forth can occasionally generate Tudor-history whiplash in the viewer, especially when punctuated by vitriolic, Mary-slandering sermons by David Tennant’s wild-eyed preacher John Knox, sporting a beard you could lose a badger in.
Rather more compelling is the romantic disaster of Mary’s seduction by Jack Lowden’s slyly drunken and decadent Lord Darnley, as desperate for a crown as Mary is for an heir to cement her claims. Pinballing between plotters, husbands, and her civil-warring half-brother Moray (James McArdle), Ronan’s quick-tempered, much-betrayed queen feels at the mercy of the men around her.
So the film often resembles The Other Boleyn Girl rather than the epic Elizabeth, where a similarly beleaguered royal forged her steely image as the Virgin Queen. Robbie gets the sticky end of the sceptre here, her much smaller share of screen time mostly consisting of lonely yearning contrasted with Mary’s emotional tumult.
Her Elizabeth (garishly poxed, white-faced, and wigged, like the It movie’s Pennywise) sensitively mixes political pragmatism with piercing jealousy of Mary’s beauty, her bravery, and her baby son who will inherit both kingdoms. Where Robbie ruminates, Ronan rules however, fizzing with headstrong anger or racked with anguish at her traitorous ‘protectors’.
Magnificent in the single (historically inaccurate but powerful) meeting of the regal rivals, Ronan slips mercurially from pleading for sisterhood to stinging insults, carving her own deadly path. She’s the jewel in the crown of Rourke’s theatrical style, which reaches for the twists and treachery of a real-life Game of Thrones, but keeps the action determinedly intimate.
- Release date: December 7, 2018 (US)/January 18, 2019 (UK)
- Certificate: R (US)/15 (UK)
- Running time: 124 mins