MARY, Queen of Scots and Queen Elizabeth I are two of history’s most formidable leaders.
As women, they faced down challenges from court, and society, to rule as they saw fit. Both suffered immensely in their personal lives to ensure that they could keep a tight hold on their power.
They were fierce, they were brave, and no matter where your loyalties lie in a political or historical context, they command respect and admiration.
It must be one of the the most well-known showbiz facts in Ireland that Saoirse Ronan has been nominated for an Oscar three times. She is an extraordinary young actor, someone who gains in confidence and talent with each new role she takes on.
It makes sense, then, that in her latest role we see her take on one-half of history’s most iconic female leaders in Mary, Queen of Scots.
Without getting into too much of a history lesson, it is the 16th century. Mary, the daughter of King James IV of Scotland, was raised a Catholic in France. She was betrothed as a small child to France’s Francis II. They married when she was 16, but by 18 her husband had died and Mary returned to Scotland.
We first meet her as she arrives home — homecoming that is not welcomed by everyone.
Her half-brother James (James McArdle) has been ruling Scotland in her absence. He is not too happy to see her back, but he steps aside, allowing her to take the throne of Scotland. This acceptance might change as things progress.
The Protestant cleric John Knox (David Tennant) is also unhappy to have her back. He objects to her reign because she is a female, a gender he sees as unfit to rule. He also objects because she is a Catholic. As most of you will know, this is the post-Henry VIII era and Catholicism has been replaced by Protestantism, except in Scotland, a country painfully divided by the two religions.
Knox is determined that her reign will not last, and is travelling around Scotland drumming up anti-Mary sentiment. He appeals to Protestants to rise up against her and talks about the lack of power Scotland has with a woman at the helm.
There is one more person unhappy with Mary’s return, and this is someone she really doesn’t want to get on her wrong side. Queen Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie) has yet to marry and has not yet borne a successor. By birth, Mary has a strong entitlement to the English throne should Elizabeth die without an heir. She is Elizabeth’s cousin, and her claim to the throne is in some ways stronger than Elizabeth’s own.
Mary wants Elizabeth to name her as her successor, something Elizabeth is not entirely against doing, but their respective courts have other ideas.
While Elizabeth sees the promise in giving the throne to a strong woman with a blood right to succession, her court fears the consequences of the crown once again being held by a Catholic.
As meetings take place in shaded corridors, the young Mary faces the constant threat of betrayal. Despite some twists and turns, she becomes stronger and braver as she rules. She finds love with Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden) and befriends David Rizzio (Ismael Cruz Cordova), a musician who would have a profound effect on her, becoming one of her closest friends and confidante.
Love and friendship come at a price, but for every wall that Mary faces, she becomes more robust, more capable, and more assertive in her power.
As Mary grows as a leader, Elizabeth is suffering from ill-health and comes under increasing pressure from the men of court to marry before it is too late for her to bear a child. The two monarchs converse through letters. Understanding that they are united by their positions, they bond. We know how this story ends, but how do these two royal cousins end up at odds?
Robbie is a great actor. She has made some brave decisions in this, allowing her beauty to be hidden, something which is difficult for women to do in Hollywood. This is Mary’s story, but Robbie makes great use of her time on screen, allowing us to see the struggles Elizabeth faced.
Ronan is nothing less than brilliant. It is, perhaps, her best performance to date. She is confident, assured, and radiates sensuality and power.
With stunning costumes and great direction from Josie Rourke, this is a gripping look at the lives of two of history’s greatest women.