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Power behind the throne: Royal women battle the patriarchy in ‘Mary Queen of Scots’

Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan) and Elizabeth (Margot Robbie) vie for the throne of England in 'Mary Queen of Scots.'

Guy Pearce and Margot Robbie in "Mary Queen of Scots."
Guy Pearce and Margot Robbie in "Mary Queen of Scots."Read moreLiam Daniel / AP

Even if Mel Brooks is correct, and it’s good to be the king, being the queen is apparently a different matter.

It’s actually bad to a queen in Mary Queen of Scots. You’re dealing with smallpox, assassination plots, arranged marriages, and foaming-at-the-mouth religious zealots on every side, so that a good day is exhausting, a bad day potentially lethal.

So it is for two women vying for the throne of England, circa 1600. Elizabeth (Margot Robbie), a Protestant with a disputed claim to the crown, is queen, and across the channel her Catholic cousin Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan) and heir to Scotland’s throne has been paired off with the son of the French king in a marriage designed to unify France, England, and Scotland in the eyes of Catholic Europe.

Fate intervenes, the king and his son die in the span of a year, leading a suddenly vulnerable young Mary to return to native Scotland to rule there, and to stand as a dangerous rival to Elizabeth, with all sorts of deadly intrigue in play. That’s where we begin in Mary Queen of Scots, directed by Josie Rourke, who is keen to show that while Mary and Elizabeth may be rivals, they having something important in common: opposition from the patriarchal factions (religious military and political) that truly call the shots.

Rourke (and scripter Beau Willimon) have given Mary Queen of Scots a feminist spin — suggesting a spiritual, sisterly bond (and convening an actual meeting) between the two monarchs, and adding other modern touches. There are people of color (including Crazy Rich Asians' Gemma Chan) in court, and gender fluid and LGBTQ characters in significant roles.

Yet in some ways Mary feels less of-the-moment than other recent movies. It arrives on the heels of Widows, written by Gillian Flynn (Sharp Objects, Gone Girl), who’s recently redefined feminism on-screen with stories about women who assert their equality by being — potentially — as ruthless as men. And Mary Queen of Scots also has the bad luck to follow, by just one week, The Favourite, also drawn from history, and showing the wicked battle of wits/wills between aristocrats Lady Sarah Churchill and Abigail Masham in the court of Queen Anne, some hundred years up the road. They are no-holds-barred, and it’s to the advantage of the characters and the movie.

Mary Queen of Scots is a comparatively dour affair, and expends too much energy on the machinations of the plotting by the various patriarchal factions (Guy Pearce and David Tennant pop up). The movie is full of hairy, angry men, all with ruffled collars under their beards, and they are so interchangeable it’s hard to keep track of the various conspiracies. (Director Shekhar Kapur did a better job in 1998′s Elizabeth, starring Cate Blanchett.)

Ronan is good (as usual) as the spirited and rather haughty Mary, making the most of what, to be fair, is the plum role. Poor Robbie, though, has been given a prosthetic nose in lieu of a personality, and hasn’t much to do.


Mary Queen of Scots

  1. Directed by Josie Rourke. With Saoirse Ronan, Margot Robbie, Jack Lowdon, Joe Alwyn, David Tennant, Gemma Chan, and Guy Pearce. Distributed by Focus Features.

  2. Parents' guide: R (sex)

  3. Running time: 128 minutes

  4. Playing at: Ritz Five