Mary Queen of Scots (2018)

2h 4m / R / Biography, Drama, History

Saoirse Ronan (Lady Bird) and Margot Robbie (I, Tonya) went head-to-head for best actress at the Academy Awards almost a year ago, and both lost to Frances McDormand. And now the two actresses will battle on the big screen as rival royals in the lavish biopic Mary Queen of Scots, with Ronan in the title role and Robbie as Queen Elizabeth I. The lush but ultimately tragic tale of these two smart women, both of whom had plausible if problematic claims on the English throne, has been put on screens big and small a number of times, most famously in 1936 with Katharine Hepburn starring as Mary of Scotland for director John Ford, with Florence Eldridge as Elizabeth. The dream casting of Ronan in the title role is reason enough to justify another look at Mary’s torrid early years, when she returned from France following the death of her first husband and juggled a handful of suitors in an attempt to better position herself as a challenger to Elizabeth’s rule.

Writer Beau Willimon lays out the board for a historical-but-fictionalized game of thrones in Mary, a spirited feminist take on the oft-dramatized tug-of-war between the two 16th century British queens. For nearly 500 years, writers have elided the fact that the two cousins never actually met in order to deliver the drama and Willimon is no exception, as he and first-time director Josie Rourke stir the juicy royal rivalry while also playing up their female solidarity in the face of male power plays and religious meddling. Like a season of prestige television crammed into the space of two hours, Mary Queen of Scots spares audiences the butchery but leans heavily into the magnetic characterization and incredible visual palette to explain how the misfortunate monarch came to find her neck on the line.

In rethinking a familiar story, this Mary Queen of Scots is also exploring what stories we still tell about women in power — what a woman can and can’t do, what she can and can’t be.