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Review: ‘Mary Queen of Scots’ deserves royal assent (Includes first-hand account)

Women have strived for power for centuries, but those who’ve achieved it have found it incredibly difficult to maintain. People, particularly men, have historically had problems being subordinate to female leaders — especially when they believe they should be at the head of the table or, more commonly, that they can do a better job. In spite of being born to their positions and spending their lives training for their role, monarchs are constantly under threat by someone waiting in the wings hoping to gain from a marriage proposal or their deposal. Mary Queen of Scots chronicles the life of a woman who kept a steely grip on her throne until they found the one weakness she could not deny.

As Protestantism swept Europe, the widowed Catholic queen raised in France returned to her home in the Highlands to rule, relinquishing her half-brother, James (James McArdle), of the duty. This obviously presented numerous problems, most of which Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan) confronted head-on and with an iron fist. Both she and her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie), were also aware of her claim to England’s throne, creating an instant and unfortunate rivalry between the two women who could’ve used each other’s confidence much more. As they each discover the other to be a worthy opponent in their high-stakes game of chess, they must also be mindful of usurpers in their midst hoping to gain the crown.

Though the film is named after Mary, Elizabeth had more than a supporting role in her reign in spite being miles away. They exchange letters containing hopeful olive branches, veiled threats and cunning ruses regularly. Even though they each had a country to govern, they were often preoccupied with the other’s opinions, plots and downfall. Their advisors grumble about having to follow the whims of women, yet it’s them who insist their respective queen address the potential threat of her cousin — heaven forbid someone should undo their treacherous groundwork before they should have the chance to benefit.

Mary’s fate is calamitous. She never really stood a chance as her supposed council began plotting against her the moment she returned to Scotland. She’s portrayed as a strong, intelligent ruler who demands respect because she’s a woman in power rather than attempt to shed her femininity like her counterpart. Unfortunately, Mary was also known to make decisions informed by her emotions that backfired in some way or another more than once, which is one too many considering how much hangs in the balance. Yet, she also seems generally fair and could have been an excellent monarch if she didn’t spend so much of her time squashing rebellions and outmanoeuvering her allies.

One of the more candid and, potentially, shocking aspects of the story is how sex is handled within the narrative. Elizabeth was in love with her childhood friend, Robert Dudley (Joe Alwyn), and they are shown spending intimate evenings in her chambers, though she would not surrender to their fleshly desires. Conversely, Mary had known the touch of her husband, but as she tells it there wasn’t much to report. However, part of her future husband, Henry Darnley’s (Jack Lowden), courtship includes a salacious visit to her bedroom that leaves her convinced of his worthiness. Less lustily, Mary’s gentlewomen were joined by a young male musician, Rizzio (Ismael Cruz Cordova), who longed to be their sister rather than their bedmate — a quality Mary encouraged rather than repressed, even if not everyone was as accepting of homosexuality.

Ronan appears so delicate and attractive, but opposite her kindness is ferocious might and determination to retain the crown. Her slight stature is deceiving and invites challengers, but she proves time and again to be a relentless and shrewd opponent. One of the most immediately notable aspects of Robbie’s character is her beauty is marred early on by disease and her face concealed by heavy make-up to hide the scars. As a result, the striking actress whose roles have often revolved around her appearance is now relying solely on her talent — and she is formidable. Elizabeth unhappily boasts about adopting the characteristics of a man to maintain her post and Robbie captures all of the emotions around her conflicted masculinity seamlessly.

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Obviously, this is a simplified and likely exaggerated representation of history, but the difficulties these women faced should not be dismissed or underestimated.

Director: Josie Rourke
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Margot Robbie and Jack Lowden

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