From the moment Saoirse Ronan’s Mary Stuart washes ashore, we and everyone on that craggy balmy Scottish beach innately know her as royalty. Josie Rourke‘s directorial debut, Mary Queen of Scots, is a period piece like no other: merging the historical relationship between cousins, Queen Elizabeth and Mary, while featuring a diverse cast dotted among the white gentry of England and Scotland.
As a primer, Rourke does expect her audience to have some knowledge of the two historical figures. For Americans, the prospect requires some light research. Elizabeth I, the second child of Henry VIII, is the cousin of Mary Stuart, whose grandmother, Mary Tudor, was Henry VIII’s older sister. This technically makes Mary Stuart heir to the English throne. If not for her Catholicism, a big no-no as the Church of England is Protestant and the Queen is the head of the church, she would be queen. Mary Queen of Scots revolves around this fact. Though their gender unites them, both are “sister” Queens, ownership of England divides them.
Rourke and production designer James Merifield nimbly demonstrate the difference between the kingdoms. Mary occupies a drab stone castle, hosting debaucherous parties where the sex flows as much as the wine. Elizabeth’s court is a purposeful stiff portrayal of royalty, where protocol supersedes any hint of human impulse. The lighting in Mary Queen of Scots’ is critical, oscillating between the styles of Nicholas Hilliard’s open and airy lightness and Rembrandt’s penchant for shadows. The queens diverge even further in their beauty. Elizabeth (Margot Robbie), afflicted by smallpox, displayed a scarred face, while Mary’s remains unblemished.
Both Queens’ inner-circle demonstrate Rourke’s mantra of colorblind casting. Mary’s—includes an Italian gay troubadour and servant named Rizzio (Ismael Cruz Cordova)—the type of historical figure rarely portrayed in period pieces, where usually the sexuality of all is assumed; while Elizabeth’s features Lord Randolph (Adrian Lester), who doesn’t appeared to be black in real life, but is so here. Rourke’s colorblind casting—finding the best actor—is a welcomed and refreshing change of pace.
The first-time director acquires a talented ensemble, especially among the men jockeying for power. Guy Pearce as William Cecil—adviser to Elizabeth—David Tennant as the Protestant cleric John Knox, and James McArdle as Mary’s half-brother, all present the precious power held by even noble women. Mary and Elizabeth are rarely as omnipotent as they perceive themselves to be. Especially Mary, who cunningly staves off multiple rebellions. Most telling is Joe Alwyn playing Robert Dudley, a drunk and Mary’s second husband. During the period, women were stereotyped for their “weak” constitutions. Here, it’s a man who’s feeble.
Robbie and Ronan, instead, dominate—displaying a loving, yet fraught and tenuous relationship. Though it’s obvious Ronan’s queen is the star, Robbie’s Elizabeth rarely displays any power—which might be one of the shortcomings of the film—while the actress’s screen time is limited. Elizabeth’s sole attribute is survival. It’s the ability to politically maneuver, to promise an heir and forestall greedy men. Completely lacking nimble expertise in courtly machinations, Mary isn’t a fixed point. She’s the bursting supernova, wonderful and beautiful in her short existence, but destined to burn out spectacularly. Because while Mary bears an heir (James I)—in the hopes of subverting Elizabeth’s rule—she makes herself prey to man by diminishing her autonomy through marriage.
For most audiences, there will be a cultural and historical disconnect. Modern viewers just aren’t privy to concepts like the “Great Chain of Being” (the “natural” order that determines betters and lessers). The detachment will pull most away from sympathizing with Mary, especially during her meeting with Elizabeth. Here—with her background in theater—Rourke crafts an evocative scene in a barn. The two Queens—women who only know the other through letters and portraits—speak through rows of hanging linen. The natural lighting pouring forth adds near translucency to the draped sheets. The two Queens—in a near dance—move from one row to the other until they’re face-to-face. The scene is cathartic and poignant, fierce and gripping. Mary fully sows the seeds of her downfall in her belief of superiority to Elizabeth, failing to grasp the political moment. Robbie and Ronan are both sincere and innate in their characters’ tumultuous relationship, providing a wellspring of emotion to a film with plentiful layers of gripping peril.
Few films are better crafted than Mary Queen of Scots. From the production design to the immaculate costumes of Alexandra Byrne, more than the past is recreated. Rourke and co, instead, redefine the limits of a period piece. Diversity in 16th century can occur, if more film and casting directors, and screenwriters, are willing to dig deeper in the footnotes of history. The effort is exactly what a rigorously executed and beautiful period drama like Mary Queen of Scots deserves.