If history is written by the winners, they haven’t done a very good job of burying Mary Stuart. As the only living legitimate child of King James V, she ascended to the throne at six days old in 1542 and later became the Queen Consort of France through marriage before being deprived of her title, her freedom, and ultimately her head by her first cousin, Queen Elizabeth I.
But those bare facts hardly diminish the legend of the woman presented in Mary Queen of Scots — a figure so strong-willed, intelligent, and vivaciously alive that even would-be rivals and saboteurs seem to wilt inside her force field. A lot is owed to the sensational performance of 24-year-old Saoirse Ronan, who is somehow as singularly believable here as she was as the poisonous little girl in Atonement, a pink-haired Sacramento oddball in Lady Bird, and a tenderhearted Irish immigrant in Brooklyn (all three roles brought her Oscar nominations; it’s hard to imagine this one not earning her a fourth).
The script, by House of Cards creator Beau Willimon, has the chess-piece intrigue of that show’s endless power struggles; Mary is never not a moving target, whether she’s seeking refuge with her half-brother (James McArdle) in Edinburgh or a strategic second marriage (to Dunkirk’s Jack Lowden).
But there’s only one she truly considers an equal: Elizabeth (a hawk-nosed, pox-scarred Margot Robbie) — her match in wit and willpower, if not beauty. Other players come and go, including David Tennant as a Protestant leader so frothingly mad he nearly needs a rabies shot, and Guy Pearce as Elizabeth’s circumspect adviser. What keeps the film from feeling like period-piece amber, all whispered alliances and wiggery, is the keenly feminist sensibility of first-time director Josie Rourke (her background is largely in theater) and the fierce charisma and complicated humanity of its two leads, sovereigns till the end. A-