Whether you know the rivalry well or you’ve never heard of Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth’s ‘game of thrones,’ Margot and Saoirse deliver an unmissable performance. Let the Oscar buzz begin!
Calling all feminists! Mary Queen of Scots isn’t just a gripping depiction of the friendship and rivalry of Queen Elizabeth and Queen Mary, but a rallying cry for strong female leaders. In the unmissable movie, Margot Robbie, 28, and Saoirse Ronan, 24, both have a claim to the throne of England. Saoirse leads the film as Queen Mary, a fiercely brave woman who replaced her late father as Scotland’s ruler when she was only six days old. After the French heir she was married off to passes away, Mary returns to her home country and regains her place on the throne — but Scotland has become Protestant in her absence and doesn’t want a Catholic ruler. She is determined to rule anyway, desired by her council or not, and to challenge her cousin Queen Elizabeth to make her heir to England’s throne as well.
And if that means going to battle or arranging a marriage with her cousin Henry Stuart, played by Jack Lowden, then so be it. Mary even has a child with Henry, who will have more claim to the throne than she does, through sheer force of will. Although her husband has cheated on her with another man and initially refuses to have sex with her, they conceive a son, James. But while she is strategic and smart in her attempts to the throne, she is not a ruthless leader, but a shockingly kind one. Whether she’s talking with her fiercely loyal gentlewomen, forgiving her half-brother for betraying her or wholly accepting her openly gay secretary, Mary makes time to foster close relationships with others.
Even as she battles Elizabeth for her throne, Mary writes her respectful letters. In fact, the correspondence between the queens is friendly, which makes sense considering the two women are the only people in the world who can truly understand each other. Surrounded by men who want to make decisions for them and scheme behind their backs, Elizabeth and Mary both refuse to be pawns. But while they can relate on this level, Margot, who is completely unrecognizable as Queen Elizabeth with her pale makeup, tight orange ringlets and high collars, is everything that Mary isn’t.
While the Scottish queen is portrayed as young, beautiful and brave, Elizabeth has completely shut herself off to maintain her rule. She doesn’t trust anybody enough to marry, as much as she loves her childhood friend Robert Dudley, played by Joe Alwyn. And despite wanting a child of her own, an heir, she cannot allow that to happen. “I’m more man than woman,” she admits at one point. “The throne made me so.” While Mary is vibrant, the English queen seems trapped in the role she is clinging to. She doesn’t want details when her men go to battle with Mary’s people, and she doesn’t confide in her gentlewomen as Mary does. She is fierce in her own constricting way and brings this up when she and her Scottish ‘sister’ come face to face at the end of the movie.
Mary, who has been betrayed by even the most loyal member of her council, flees Scotland and organizes a secret meeting with Elizabeth. She believes the two queens can work together to defeat the men trying to control them. “I know your heart has more within it than the men who counsel you,” she says, but the English queen refuses to go to war over Mary, a Catholic. This is when Elizabeth admits to being jealous of the other queen’s beauty, motherhood and bravery, but says, “Now I see there’s no cause for envy. Your gifts will be your downfall.” But Elizabeth’s words do ring true. Mary’s bravery and perseverance are her downfall — and ultimately lead to her beheading.
The two lead actresses are only face to face for a few minutes, but their short scene together is the most emotionally charged moment in the entire film. Josie Rourke, making his directorial debut with Mary Queen of Scots, manages to build enough tension between Elizabeth and Mary through solo scenes to justify this satisfying climax. So even though the meeting did not happen historically, Josie’s dramatization is well-earned — and helped along by Margot and Saoirse’s phenomenal chemistry.
It’s clear that their characters and the high-stakes circumstances they find themselves in are extremely complex, but both of the Academy Award-nominated actresses skillfully embody the legendary figures. It’s no wonder they’re generating Oscar buzz. Mary Queen of Scots, which hits theaters Dec. 7, is a captivating story brought to life by two truly talented actresses.