Saoirse Ronan Fiercely Battles All the Bad Men in Mary Queen of Scots

We arguably dont need another movie about the pre-modern British monarchy, at least not in most of our lifetimes. Its all been said before—the weight of the crown, the intrigue of Protestants vs. Catholics, the stifling sexual mores that shaped royal lines—in various hues and volumes. Enough already! Especially when these stories necessitate such a monochromatic cast of characters, all these old stories casually reinforcing a hegemony long worthy of being dismantled.

I say this, and yet inevitably another one of these movies (or miniseries)—a tawdry Tudor tale, an elegant Elizabethan epic—will burble up and Ill trudge back off to the theater to see what else might be mined from all this stripped territory. I report with uneasy surprise that, in that regard, Mary Queen of Scots, from theater director Josie Rourke, earns its spot on the royal register. But this should be the last one! Seriously this time.

Rourke does enough to both honor and reshape the hallowed mold to keep things interesting. Working with a script from Beau Willimon—the House of Cards creator whose smart streak is sometimes undone by hammier impulses—she steers an interesting course through cliché, both upending and satisfying the royals fans hunger for repetition, for familiar tropes staged anew.

Mary Queen of Scots has a stately gloss. Rourke works with cinematographer John Mathieson and composer Max Richter to create some really striking sequences; there are, as there must be, the sweeping vistas of cloud-streaked Scotland, chilly and proud as its queen. But Im more taken by Rourkes intimate tableaux, castle scenes of fragile warmth and communion that are given the candlelit chiaroscuro glow of a Rembrandt or a Caravaggio. Rourke, the artistic director of Londons lauded Donmar Warehouse, has a keen eye for stage picture, placing her actors and guiding their light with gorgeous results. Im always a little nervous when a theater director, especially a well-known and respected one like Rourke, makes the leap to movies. But Mary Queen of Scots makes me eager to see what else she can do in film, especially when shes maybe not so penned in by the bounds of oft-revisited history.

Mary Queen of Scots does realign the narrative, to some degree. Rourke serves up the story of Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan) returning to France to claim her throne in Scotland—while eyeing a viable claim to the English crown, held by her cousin, Queen Elizabeth (Margot Robbie_)—as a thick and satisfying stew, one whose primary seasoning is men being the worst. Which is a pretty convincing line of attack—for back then, and for right now. The film is a sad and frustrated treatise about the patriarchy putting aside its petty differences, its interior squabbles, and banding together to take down a powerful woman who dares to strive for more. We see men ruin so much, interfere so recklessly, throughout Mary Queen of Scots that itd be exhausting if it wasnt so refreshingly pointed.

Even us gay men, who sometimes excuse ourselves from the whole "men are the worst" sentiment, are given sober assessment in the film. One gay guy is good (Mary is an ally!) and one is quite horrible. Nearly all the straight ones are horrors: jealous, violent, howling with perceived emasculation. Rourke hits these thematic beats squarely but not too heavily, usually managing to rein in some of Willimons chunkier, more obvious flourishes. Not always, though. When a weary, despondent Elizabeth says to her steadfast lover (Joe Alwyn, treated a bit better here than in The Favourite), "How cruel men are," you want to respond, "Well, yes, Liz, the whole film is a grand testament to that." Im not sure it needed be stated so on the nose there.

One probably shouldnt chide poor Elizabeth for putting things bluntly, though. Shes a royal in pain—and as Mary points out to a handmaid who is begging her to give up a surely lost cause, only another queen can truly understand Marys noble call to rule. Mary Queen of Scots illustrates that rather rigid psychology in nuanced ways, aided immensely by Ronans sharp, intuitive performance. Ronan has played a number of determined young women, and its exciting to watch her applying added layers of maturity and knowing to this new portrait. She nimbly handles Marys fiery verbal exchanges with those who would doubt or question her, and she gives a commanding, expressive physical performance. As Mary regards her court or sits back in her chair after having efficiently asserted authority over some weaselly man, Ronans calm slouches and tilts of her head communicate a wealth of interior monologue.

Robbie is a bit wobblier, if only because she seems to have trouble with her accent. On second viewing, though, her performance has a supple emotional clarity. This version of Elizabeth is lonely and wracked with envy, but shes not a vindictive mess. She fears Marys beauty and acumen, but respects it, too. As, yes, maybe only another queen could. Rourke, like Michael Mann did with Heat, keeps her two stars separate for most of the movie. When they are at long last on the screen together, in a climactic showdown of sorts, both actresses thrill to the tension. Mary receives the bulk of the films attention, so its nice to finally hear Elizabeth so raggedly, so rawly speak her piece. The film strikes an arresting balance in that way, a fairness—even if we know that Elizabeth was the queen who "won" in the end.

Its in this scene that Rourke shows us a fuller glimpse of Marys stubbornness, a celebrated mettle that gives off a glimmer of vainglory. The conclusion of Mary Queen of Scots, then, is not that Mary was a saint or martyr, but that she was a woman owed something according to the rules of the patriarchal system governing her world—a system which then balked when Mary came collecting. Whether or not we moderns now see all that dynastic succession as a just or moral enterprise is mostly beside the point. Mary Queen of Scots watches in sophisticated glumness as the men in Marys orbit bend the rails of history around her, wrenching so badly we think the whole thing ought to break. The true tragedy of the story, of course, is that it never does.

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Get Vanity Fairs HWD NewsletterSign up for essential industry and award news from Hollywood.Richard LawsonRichard Lawson is the chief critic for Vanity Fair, reviewing film, television, and theatre. He lives in New York City.