One could be forgiven, after seeing the posters for Mary Queen of Scots, for imagining that this is a two-hander between Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie. And in a sense, it is, but not in the conventional sense.
The film opens with — hardly a spoiler; she’s been dead over 400 years — the execution of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland, then jumping back to her return in 1561 to Leith, where she resumed her reign of Scotland and her not entirely, what with her being the legitimate grand-niece of Henry VIII of England and all, without merit pretence to the English throne currently occupied by Elizabeth I. The history is well-enough known that, again, spoilers aren’t really a concern: Mary, raised Catholic in France, wants to ensure that the child of any marriage she undertakes will be designated heir to the crown of England, but Elizabeth, who wouldn’t have been born were it not for her Dad’s English Reformation, is trying to out-manoeuvre her by suggesting suitors more biddable to herself.
And so the intrigue goes on. On that level, it’s all very slightly Game Of Thrones — not a single moment of the characters’ lives is occupied by thoughts of anything but plot and conspiracy, of the elaborate chess game of playing the other. But Mary Queen Of Scots is much, much more than just that, and this is due, largely but by no means entirely, to the outstanding performances of the two leads.
Ronan plays Mary with the deft, delicate subtlety that she brings to every role she takes. She is a quite remarkable actress, able to carry a scene and deliver an emotion with little more than the slightest turn of a lip, the flaring of a nostril. Her Mary grows through the film from a slightly nervous but determined girl into a strong, assured woman, while Robbie’s Elizabeth descends from utter assuredness, through smallpox, into self-doubt and, just occasionally, the slightest hints of incipient madness, this another magnificent piece of nuanced, layered acting. Either one of these two would be enough to raise Mary Queen Of Scots above most other films; this film features the two finest young actresses working today, and the result is outstanding.
Oddly, then, they only have one scene together, and it’s a scene that has no historical basis, unlike the rest of the film, which appears to be quite soundly based on decent historical research. But the moment the two queens meet, after dancing around each other for a few moments, is moving not simply because of the two remarkable actresses who carry the scene, but also because of the fantastic direction of Josie Rourke, who has created a beautiful film — beautiful in its acting and storytelling, but beautiful to look at, with rich, detailed scenery, colours that are both soft and warm, stark and cold, shot wonderfully.
But Ronan and Robbie aren’t alone in the film, of course. They’re more than ably supported by a fantastic cast. Jack Lowden plays Henry Darnley with an elegantly wasted loucheness, while James McArdle’s Moray is a man who is trying very hard to convince himself that he’s doing the right thing. Guy Pearce is understated and excellent as Cecil, and David Tennant is both barely recognisable and slightly terrifying as Scottish religious reformer John Knox, staring down the queen and denouncing her, spittle flying from magnificent beard, as a “hoor.” Beau Willimon’s screenplay crosses over into slightly stilted cod-Shakespeare territory in places — “Let us go. We have much business.” — but such is the acting talent on display that it hardly matters.
It’s a harsh film where it needs to be — the sex is loveless at best, violent and rapish at worst — and while the two queens are cousins, and Mary tries so very hard to endear herself to the woman she calls “sister,” it is full of backstabbing, literal and metaphorical. But it is, even at well over two hours, a wonderfully engaging, absorbing story of two powerful, almost, but crucially not quite, equally-matched women, played by two gloriously talented actresses.