Published Dec 05, 2018Who was the rightful heir to the English throne in the mid-16th century: Protestant ruler Elizabeth I of the House of Tudor, or her Catholic cousin Mary Queen of Scots, of the House of Stuart?
The answer is, of course, "Who gives a shit?"
Given the absolute chaos of present-day British politics, it's hard to feel too invested in this story of 16th century royals squabbling about royal succession. Not that a movie needs to be relevant to be enjoyable, but this subject matter is so dry, it might as well be a film adaptation of an undergrad research paper.
Mary Queen of Scots begins with the titular protagonist (Saoirse Ronan) arriving back home in Scotland, having lived in France and become a widow while still a teenager. Through a tangled series of bloodlines that aren't fully explained, she considers herself the rightful ruler of England as well. The rather slow first half of the movie focuses on Mary and Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie) attempting to out-manoeuvre one another, using potential marriages as bargaining chips in a struggle to legitimize their claim to the throne.
As Mary's plan falls apart and the political climate grows increasingly hostile, director Josie Rourke finally exposes the humanity in her subjects. Even if Saoirse Ronan doesn't bring much personality to the lead role, it's still harrowing to watch her being viciously persecuted because of her gender. David Tennant is fantastically nasty as John Knox, a Protestant clergyman who accuses Mary of being a heretic and a "harlot," reaffirming Tennant's status as one of the best villainous actors around. Mary's second and third husbands — played by Jack Lowden and Martin Compston, respectively — only make things worse, with their two-faced callousness.
The real star here isn't Mary at all, but Elizabeth — brilliantly played by Margot Robbie, who conveys a thin veneer of confidence disguising a deep well of neuroses. Her skin scarred by smallpox (hence the caked-on white makeup), her hair thinning (hence the cartoonish red wig) and fiercely protective of her power (hence never marrying), her poise gradually unravels in stark contrast to her rival. Robbie wonderfully embodies both political power and human weakness.
And so we're left with two movies: a stuffy historical drama and a powerfully intimate character study. Centuries-old succession disputes are boring, but people are always fascinating.