Arts

Film: Ronan and Robbie give commanding performances in Mary Queen of Scots

Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie face off impressively as Mary Stuart and Elizabeth I in historical drama Mary Queen of Scots, a film that looks great though it lacks emotional depth and dramatic momentum, writes Damon Smith

Damon Smith

TRAILING in the wake of Yorgos Lanthimos's riotous royal romp The Favourite, director Josie Rourke's lavish drama is a restrained affair which drips copious blood on screen but has little running through its veins.

Beau Willimon's screenplay spans 26 years between the return of Mary Stuart to the Scottish motherland and her execution at Fotheringhay Castle at the behest of Elizabeth I.

The complicity of the English queen is debated by historians but Rourke's film takes its lead from John Guy's book Queen Of Scots: The True Life Of Mary Stuart and lingers on the image of Elizabeth adding her signature to an execution warrant in the Privy Council Chamber.

A face-to-face encounter between the two women in a secluded barn festooned with lines of drying laundry is another stylish deviation from documented fact but provides this Mary Queen Of Scots with a few lip-smacking minutes for formidable lead actresses Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie to spark off each other.

"As long as you do not provoke my enemies, you have nothing to fear," snarls Elizabeth, as the secret rendezvous reaches an acrimonious conclusion.

In 1561, a Protestant queen, Elizabeth I (Robbie), rules England. Her power is threatened by the return of 18-year-old Catholic cousin Mary Stuart (Ronan) from France. Many English Catholics believe Mary is the legitimate heir to the English throne.

"You may tell Scotland that we wish to love the Stuarts as our kin but they should love us in return," declares Elizabeth to trusted adviser William Cecil (Guy Pearce).

He suggests the simplest way to control Mary would be through a marriage to the queen's "special friend" Robert Dudley (Joe Alwyn). Instead, Mary chooses her first cousin, Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden), and they produce a son and heir, James.

"Do you love me?" asks Darnley.

"You have given me an heir to two thrones. That matters to me more than love," replies Mary.

While figures close to the Scottish queen plot against her, including Protestant cleric John Knox (David Tennant) and her half-brother, the Earl of Moray (James McArdle), men in Elizabeth's court attempt to manoeuvre their monarch on to the bloodstained path of civil war.

Mary Queen Of Scots glosses over Mary's years of incarceration in England before her beheading for dramatic expediency, concentrating on the period when the two women were pitted against one another despite their best effort to remain "sisters".

Ronan and Robbie command their scenes with tub-thumping support from a largely British and Irish cast that includes Co Down actress Eileen O'Higgins, who also appeared with Ronan in Brooklyn. Willimon's script struggles to condense decades of history into an easily digestible two hours of courtly intrigue and ripping bodices.

The second half feels overly saturated and dramatic momentum is sluggish but production design and costumes are fit for a pair of duelling queens.

MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS (15, 124 mins) Drama/Romance. Saoirse Ronan, Margot Robbie, Jack Lowden, Joe Alwyn, Guy Pearce, David Tennant, Martin Compston, James McArdle. Director: Josie Rourke

RATING: 6.5/10

Released: January 18 (UK & Ireland)

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