Audiences in need of something a bit posh this Christmas will undoubtedly rush off to see Mary Queen of Scots, a beguilingly lush retelling of the turbulent tale of Mary Stuart and her life-long frenemy and cousin Elizabeth I. Indeed, this film soars whenever its Oscar-nominated costars Saoirse Ronan (Mary) and Margot Robbie (Elizabeth) are on screen. Alas, the two hour-plus movie (it feels a tad longer) is a bit earthbound when it has to slog through the schematics of their respective lives and how entrenched each were in royal courts infested with numbskull but often-ruthless men.
History reminds us that Elizabeth, daughter of King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, survived no less than her mother's beheading, imprisonment and a declaration of illegitimacy from the Catholic Church to rule England for nearly half a century as its so-called "Virgin Queen." Meanwhile, Mary, daughter of Scottish King James V and granddaughter of King Henry VII, became Queen of France at 16 and was widowed when she was barely 18. But she defied pressure to remarry and instead returned to her native Scotland to reclaim the throne. In short order, she also laid claim to the throne held by Elizabeth.
To secure their power, the two queens made very different choices about marriage and children. Subversion, treachery and civil war ensued. Throughout, Mary's reputation was under continual attack from her enemies, primarily from the Protestant church, which constructed lies about her allegedly illicit sexual conduct. Betrayal, rebellion and conspiracies became the order of the day until 1587 when, well, Mary lost her head, didn't she? It's a pity no one had yet invented Survivor, when the tribal council could have simply voted Mary off the island.
In addition to Ronan and Robbie, there is a third strong woman at play in Mary Queen of Scots: its director, Josie Rourke, for whom it was an astonishing feature film debut. Rarely has such an epic project been carried off with such style by a newcomer. Kudos should also go to screenwriter Beau Willimon, whose previous penmanship for Netflix's House of Cards proved he knows a thing or two about blending politics, sex, history and psychological drama.
Above all, Mary Queen of Scots is another must-see star turn for the 24-year-old and ever-astonishing Ronan. Long live the queen.