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Review: 'Mary, Queen of Scots' wouldn't work except for Saoirse Ronan

Thrown into the mix in a year filled with films featuring varying degrees and differing messages of female empowerment is “Mary Queen of Scots”. Unlike the other British monarch, pseudo-biopic, “The Favourite” which is also in theaters and which details a different English queen with a heavily sarcastic, darkly comedic script and tone, “Mary Queen of Scots” is your more traditional period piece that, nevertheless, brings girl power to the 16th century.

It’s not an easy fight – nor a fair one – but the life of Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan), rightful heir to the Scottish throne, is finally getting a wide release on the silver screen. We pick up her story upon her return from France where she was raised and reigned briefly as wife to the French king. Widowed at 18, she lands back on Scottish soil to reclaim her throne from her half-brother. She is met, however, with cynicism, derision and mistrust. She is a Catholic, and Scotland has been largely converted to Protestantism following the reformation.

Nevertheless, she persists – see what I did there? – as she attempts to unite Scotland with the promise of religious freedom and independence from the heavy tyranny of Queen Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie). It is Elizabeth’s counsel led by her chief advisor William Cecil (Guy Pearce) that pits cousin against cousin, encouraging England’s part in Scottish civil uprisings and pressuring Elizabeth’s own lover Robert Dudley (Joe Alwyn) to offer his hand in marriage to the young queen of Scotland.

Mary takes her first cousin Henry Darnley (Jack Lowden) as her husband, a move that proves to be disastrous as her power is now chained to a man and her position on the throne is immediately threatened. Two queens, both ruling neighboring lands and doing so in vastly different ways. Can they come together, or will the patriarchy be their downfall?

Directed by Josie Rourke as her debut behind the lens – she’s an established theater director and currently serves as the artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse theater in London – “Mary Queen of Scots” is a full-bodied, richly tantalizing world that also manages to keep a firm footing in realism. It isn’t too dense or too flippant, expertly straddling the line of enjoyable, highbrow art.

Thanks in part to the concise writing by screenwriter Beau Willimon, the film isn’t bogged down by arduous details and drawn-out battle sequences or, worse, soliloquies of any length. Each scene upholds its purpose of moving us ever toward the chopping block, quite literally in this case, and the focus is on relationships, not just politics.

However, none of it would work if not for Saoirse Ronan, our charismatic lead. Her presence on screen is illuminating; you can’t help but root for her ruthlessness and anger at the injustice of her downfall. The film makes an obvious comparison between both female monarchs, and the message is clear. Mary loses her power and her life because she allows men in, whereas Elizabeth, who never marries or bears any children, is kept at an untouchable distance, going down in the history books as one of the most famous, successful and powerful leaders England has ever had.

Just as Ronan embraces Mary’s ferocious and free-spirited nature, Robbie lands uncertainly, unsteadily as Elizabeth. She dons the restrictive costumes and spends what must be hours in the make-up chair applying a prosthetic nose and face to look the part of the queen whose visage was ravaged by smallpox. But, as a queen known for her fearless leadership and larger-than-life persona, Robbie’s take is small, unsure and, to great disappointment, weak. This, therefore, leads to a scale whose imbalance is quite obvious: Ronan is the scene-stealer, carrying the weight of the story and the success of the film on her highly decorative head of hair, and it is her performance that has us leaving the theater pleased.

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