At my all-girls high school in England, history class was basically an ongoing roster of uncivil wars between the Tudors (English) and Stuarts (Scottish) over who would be king of which scept'red British isle. So I knew from bickering royals, though invariably it was all about the men, mostly rascally Henry VIII and his disposable wives, fondly known to us girls as Divorced-Beheaded-Died-Divorced-Beheaded-Survived. Either I was napping at my desk or the formidable Miss Dunlop, our history teacher, never got around to the 16th century's spiciest royal war — the knock-down battle for sovereignty over the English and Scottish thrones between Henry's extremely durable daughter, Queen Elizabeth I, and her cousin Mary, Queen of Scots. In a roaring new drama from British theater director Josie Rourke, both come to us red in tooth, claw, and, in keeping with their genetic lineage, hair.
Red is the dominant color in Rourke's sassily feminist reading of that epic struggle. Mary Queen of Scots is not a catfight like Yorgos Lanthimos's The Favourite (now playing), a raucously all-about-Eve take on two scheming minxes vying for the affection of Queen Anne, who ruled over a more unified Britain a century later. Rourke's full-throttle epic is less iconoclastic, less ribald, less devoted to gastric distress and less inclined to use period costume and landscape as farce than is Lanthimos's black comedy.
Based on a revisionist biography of Mary Stuart by Dr. John Guy, Mary Queen of Scots surely doesn't lack for moxie. And though Elizabeth — played with a bracing blend of hauteur and uncertainty by Margot Robbie — is the better known of the two monarchs both in and out of the movies, this is very much Mary's story. With a great comb of flaming hair flying off her forehead, Saoirse Ronan's Mary, freshly returned from France to claim her right to the Scottish throne and, she hopes, to succession to the English one, is the objet de lust here, if only because Elizabeth comes all but buried under a coating of pox. Playing cannily against her alabaster delicacy, Ronan gives us a Mary who, though often dismissed by history as promiscuous, runs a proudly sexy court with her frisky ladies-in-waiting and a casually multi-ethnic retinue. The frank libido gets her into all kinds of trouble, notably with the bisexual opportunist Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden), who fathers a significant baby with her. This Mary may be politically unsavvy, but she's not weak, and she pushes right back when the far more seasoned Elizabeth tries to weaken her claim to the throne by proposing she marry Elizabeth's faithful aide and possible lover, Robert Dudley (Joe Alwyn).
The air around Mary and Elizabeth fairly bristles with machination, some of it their own, much of it the work of an army of entertainingly appalling male schemers for civil war. Notable among them are David Tennant as the viciously misogynist Scottish prelate John Knox, wild of eye and sporting a ratty beard that looks ready to sprout writhing serpents, and Guy Pearce in an unflattering pageboy, valiantly wrestling his Aussie diction into posh BBC syllables as Elizabeth's devoted but ruthless adviser Lord William Cecil.
History has it that Elizabeth and Mary never actually met, though they may have exchanged letters. In the movie they do, after a fashion, and in that movie scene they express anger, envy, ambivalence, and hunger for sisterly solidarity. It's possible that, in making a case for an uneasy, ambivalent sisterhood, Rourke presses too heavily on the contemporary relevance pedal. This is far from a girlie movie: Neither woman has the temperament or the appetite for victimhood, an Rourke doesn't stint on the brutal action scenes.
Mary Queen of Scots does make a powerfully moving case for an uneasy dance between two powerful women hamstrung by male politics. Only one of them knows how to play that game herself; she will survive and even flourish in one of the longest reigns in the history of English monarchy. But the price paid by the winner will be almost as heavy as that exacted on the loser, who will go on to win her own victory from the grave, uniting Britain under one ruler at last.