Arriving just three weeks after Yorgos Lanthimos’ eccentric Queen Anne drama The Favourite, Josie Rourke’s Mary Queen of Scots can’t help but seem more traditional. It is a beautifully executed account of two 16th Century Queens – Mary Stuart and Elizabeth I – though it’s approach is nothing you haven’t seen before.
Rourke, the artistic director of London’s Donmar Warehouse, makes her feature debut here, working from a script by Beau Willimon (House of Cards). Lady Bird star Saoirse Ronan is typically resolute in the role of Mary, who became the Catholic Queen of France and Scotland while her cousin Elizabeth – played by Margot Robbie – is the Protestant ruler of England.
It’s a serviceable enough take on the story, one that sees these two powerful women surrounded by scheming power-hungry men in their respective courts. Mary wants to see the two kingdoms co-exist side-by-side, but there are issues at hand, not least with Elizabeth placing her suitor Lord Dudley (Joe Alwyn, also seen in The Favourite) into the Scottish court.
Ronan belies her youth with a strong turn as Stuart, a woman who has no wish to let any man supplant her. Robbie is particularly good as Elizabeth, and credit the make-up team for so acutely showing the deterioration of the monarch’s skin after she catches Smallpox, leaving her face scarred and covered in ever-more thick white powder.
Quite how historians will feel about this latest attempt to dramatise this infamous period of history is anyone’s guess, with Willimon’s script positing that Mary and Elizabeth actually met – an encounter that categorically never happened. At least Rourke constructs the scene with flair, as they meet in a space covered in drapes that obscure the women from each other.
The cinematography by John Mathieson, a regular for Ridley Scott, is particularly luminous, helping to rather pump up the by-numbers script. Rourke does her best with the material, which can feel like a classroom lecture on the complex Catholic-Protestant issues of the day. Compared to Shekhar Kepur’s Elizabeth films, it’s a little dry and dusty.
Mary Queen of Scots opens on 18 January. For more details, click here.
Stills from Mary Queen of Scots.