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 at his evil oiliest), who plots to eliminate the threat he thinks she represents to Elizabeth.
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 Elizabeth ambassador to Mary’s court, and Gemma Chan 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 as Mary and Margot Robbie 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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