Theatre director Josie Rourke makes the transition from stage to screen with her feature film debut Mary Queen of Scots. Based on historian John Guy’s novel, the period drama chronicles the 1569 conflict between Scotland and England. When Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan) returns widowed to her native land at the age of eighteen, she and her Catholic nobles attempt to depose her cousin Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie) from her throne.
The story begins as it was marketed; a bitter battle between feuding monarchs, but it quickly becomes apparent how little control the women themselves have. We bear witness to how cloaked men behind the scenes manipulate the power struggle, and the strategic narrative is as infuriating as it is intriguing as both Mary and Elizabeth are forced to contend with their so-called friends as well as their foes. The bloodied cinematic tapestry of backstabbing and betrayal unravels against haunting sprawling landscapes and though the aesthetics are more than easy on the eye throughout, the lack of a pivotal visual sequence is distinct.
With an Irish actress as the Scottish Queen and an Australian playing the English counterpart, the idiosyncratic accents are on the surface of the central performances. Both are spot on, but there’s far more to the portrayals than their deft delivery of the diction. Ronan is fierce, and Robbie is formidable as they plot with and against a plethora of slippery adversaries. Strong support comes from a trio of Scotsmen in Jack Lowden, Martin Compston and David Tennant. Their flawed characters each play key roles in Mary’s eventual downfall, and the latter is particularly despicable. Tennant is unrecognisably impressive as odious Protestant preacher John Knox who uses his reforming influence to publicly slander his Queen with his cruel religious views.
It should come as no surprise that the screenplay is penned by House of Cards creator Beau Willimon, as Rourke’s compelling retelling of a well-worn story completely lifts the veil on the callous corruption within 16th century sovereignty. While we all know that Mary was ultimately destined to fail in her efforts to claim the crown of England, Ronan has been victorious in proving herself again as one of the best performers of her generation.