Director Josie Rourke has directed a truly intriguing and visually splendid new film about a fabled chapter in world history: the 16th century rivalry between Scotland’s Mary Stuart and England’s Elizabeth I. Saoirse Ronan’s title role performance is a winning combination of steel and warmth, beginning with Mary’s return from France to Scotland, already widowed at age 18. Beau Willimon’s complex and fascinating screenplay examines the factions both Roman Catholic and Protestant, which the Catholic Mary had to navigate in order to attain a steady footing as Scotland’s monarch. No play or film about Mary Stuart has captured this factionalism quite so quite so vividly. The script’s source is John Guy’s Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Tudor.
Feminism is built right into the story and always has been. In the major supporting role of Protestant Elizabeth (a magnificent Margot Robbie) is just as choked by misogynistic tentacles as Mary. Both monarchs’ stories as reflected in Mary Queen of Scots portray women who struggle with the demand to forego romantic love for the sake of their kingdoms. However, Mary is the more defiant, asserting that the right to love another is a matter of heart, not of the state. She rails against efforts by men to arrange her marriage in a tug-of-war for the sake of political alliances. The irony is that though she is queen, Mary is disallowed from ruling her personal life. The same goes for Elizabeth, but the latter has come to terms with it as her cross to bear.
In one unsettling subplot, Mary’s second husband, Lord Darnley (a dashingly mischievous Jack Lowden), whom she does indeed love, is found out to have had a homoerotic relationship with one of her closest confidantes, Rizzio (a sensual Ismael Cruz Cordova), of whom the queen is extremely fond. When the men’s down low behavior is verified, it ignites a horrifically homophobic mob action that emanates in unbridled male-driven wrath. The “godly” pure punish the “satanically” impure. Be warned: this segment is savagely violent, both physically and psychologically. The presence of bona fide homophobia is made wrenchingly visceral.
Rourke elicits first-rate historical performances throughout a big cast in this visually beautiful film which the wide Uptown Theatre serves well. Amazingly, it is her feature film directing debut. But that’s more of an expectation fulfilled than a surprise. Rourke has been the artistic director of one of London’s major theaters, the Donmar Warehouse. You can sense her theatrical roots in moments such as those when the chambermaids give Mary a hand bath and one of them averts her eyes while undressing her sovereign. There is also a striking short prefiguring profile of her son James (Andrew Rothney), as an adult in court garb. Tragically, Mary would never see him ultimately succeed Elizabeth to the throne as England’s monarch. By the way, that is the King James of Bible fame.
Rourke’s film is definitely on a par with previous ones about these queens’ rivalry: Mary of Scotland (1936) with Katherine Hepburn and Florence Eldridge and Mary, Queen of Scots (1971) with Vanessa Redgrave and Glenda Jackson. Rourke’s iteration, however, surpasses both of these in its more complex and illuminating grasp of the schisms and machinations that militated against this ill-fated female monarch who remained true to what she held as “the one true church” and to the right to love as she chose. What a woman!
Mary Queen of Scots
Uptown Theatre, 2906 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis