Mary Queen of Scots movie review: not so good to be the queen…

part of my Directed by Women series
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Mary Queen of Scots green light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie command the screen in this delicious anti costume drama with an earthy ethos, replete with movie-movie internecine spycraft and a sly, smart feminist parable that resonates for us today.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): I’m desperate for stories by and about women; love Ronan and Robbie
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
I have not read the source material
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
women’s participation in this film
female director, male screenwriter, female protagonist
(learn more about this)

Is the worst thing about Mary Stuart that she is a woman, or that she is a Papist? I speak of how she is seen in the eyes of the men who are doing their damnedest, in Mary Queen of Scots, to keep her from usurping Elizabeth I from the English throne in the mid 16th century. And naturally, this is a trick question: they hate and fear her for both reasons. They aren’t too crazy about Elizabeth, either, what with her also being female.

You don’t need a degree in English or Scottish history to appreciate that what looks like (and is!) pretty thrilling movie-movie internecine spycraft and occasionally outright warfare between the two thrones — Mary’s in Scotland and Elizabeth’s in England — is, in fact, the undermining of two reasonable women trying to unite their nations, their efforts thwarted by men with their own agendas and fueled by some very big, very angry misogyny. Gender is as much a tribe as religion is in the smart, sly script by House of Cards’ Beau Willimon, sometimes both at once: The Catholic Mary “is a servant of Satan,” snarls Calvinist minister John Knox (David Tennant [Ferdinand, Doctor Who] at his evil oiliest), who plots to eliminate the threat he thinks she represents to Elizabeth.

Mary Queen of Scots Margot Robbie
One good thing about being the queen: the daily finger massages. Glorious!

British stage director Josie Rourke makes her film directing debut with this delicious anti costume drama, one with an ethos far earthier than we might expect: the smells of sweat and sex practically waft off the screen, and female pleasure is a priority. Rourke also brings a color-blind spirit from her theater experience: the brilliant cast features multiple actors of color — including Adrian Lester (As You Like It, The Day After Tomorrow), as Elizabeth ambassador to Mary’s court, and Gemma Chan (Crazy Rich Asians, “Revolting Rhymes”) as a companion to Mary — which lends additional gorgeous depth to a tapestry of politics and culture that only makes the whole endeavor feel more human and accessible.

But it is the commanding central performances — from Saoirse Ronan (On Chesil Beach, Lady Bird) as Mary and Margot Robbie (Slaughterhouse Rulez, Peter Rabbit) as Elizabeth — that elevate Mary Queen of Scots to a must-see feminist parable that resonates for us today: their struggle as women to be heard in a world in which men are willfully deaf to them is shockingly modern.

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