There is a moment in the juicy new historical drama Mary Queen of Scots where the evangelical Protestant fanatic John Knox (David Tennant, looking as wild-eyed as Rasputin), so vocally excoriates the Catholic queen of Scotland, Mary (Saoirse Ronan), in front of his flock, they begin chanting for her ouster. And for a second, it’s impossible to differentiate between their hate-fueled 16th century chorus from a current-day refrain of “Lock her up!” Which, ultimately, is a big point of this film, at this time.
The story of Mary — granddaughter of King Henry VII, niece of King Henry VIII and therefore possibly claimant to the throne of England as well as Scotland — and her rivalry with Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie) — has been dramatic fodder for centuries, from Donizetti’s opera Maria Stuarda to the Glenda Jackson-Vanessa Redgrave stolid biopic of the 1970s to even a pair of Cate Blanchett films of recent vintage. But rarely has this look backward on the centuries felt so contemporarily relevant. In screenwriter Beau Willimon’s retelling, Elizabeth and Mary were sister sovereigns: women trying to prove themselves in a male-dominated world as something other than “too emotional” to rule kingdoms. But they also might have to destroy each other in order to gain the respect of the old boys’ network.
The film is a lush and often swashbuckling affair with a good head on its shoulders, but first-time filmmaker Josie Bourke makes a mess of the editing (it’s often insanely choppy and abrupt, just when it needs to be measured and explanatory), and she probably assumes too much familiarity with the historical context for most audiences. But she also addresses aspects,of sexuality (a gay servant is treated as “true to his nature” by Mary, and Elizabeth’s barrenness plainly attributed to contracting disfiguring syphilis), and elicits many fine performances, including Ronan. But none of them is better than Robbie, whose glorious supporting turn is delicate, furious and complex.
— Arnold Wayne Jones