Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie earn all the bows and curtsies coming their way for breathing feminist fire into Mary Queen of Scots, a 16th-century drama that messes just enough with recorded fact to avoid being dismissed as textbook-stuffy. In the year of the radically raunchy and irreverent The Favourite, which screwed hilariously with the 18th-century reign of Queen Anne by suggesting her court was run via a romantic ménage à trois, this period piece seems pretty tame. But there are compensations. Ronan brings her talent to the title role of the Catholic queen who believed she had more of a right to the British throne than her Protestant cousin, Elizabeth I, the virgin queen (Robbie). Since the film begins with a flash-forward to Mary with her head on the chopping block, even those who dozed during history class will figure out which cousin ultimately wore the crown.
The two regents never really met — though they do here, courtesy of a please-make-me-relevant script by Beau Willimon (House of Cards). And due credit to debuting director Josie Rourke for keeping the camera on the move and not simply relying on her theatrical chops as the artistic director of London’s Donmar Warehouse. Until their climactic, let’s-use-our-poetic-license of a get-together, teasingly staged amid flowing curtains, Mary and Elizabeth operate out of separate spheres while they side against each other. The irony is that the two queens were kindred spirits, irritated at all the controlling men telling them what to do — like, for example, Mary’s half-brother, the Earl of Moray (James McArdle).
After the death of her husband, King Francis II of France, the Catholic Mary, just 18, returns to Scotland to take on the Protestants led by John Knox (a snarling David Tennant). She believes having a child will unite the warring factions of her country. Easier said than accomplished. Yet the wily Mary proves proficient in getting pregnant by her second husband, Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden), even though he clearly prefers the bed of his wife’s gay advisor Rizzio (Ismael Cruz Cordova). Way to heat up those drafty Scottish castles.
Things aren’t quite as steamy in London where the ever-suspicious Elizabeth keeps men at a distance and covers her face with white makeup to hide the scars left by a bout with smallpox. Robbie fully commits to the role — that fake nose and carrot-top wig don’t exactly gild the lily. The film succeeds best when it shows how in times more conducive to the friendship of women in power the two queens could have been sisters under the skin. Ronan (Lady Bird) and Robbie (I, Tonya) were both nominated for a Best Actress Oscar last award season, and even when the pace of the film falters, these two performers hold you in thrall. That’s royalty.