Saoirse Ronan’s face looms out of the screen in this period movie like the figurehead on a warship’s prow: fierce, sharp, defiant. She inhabits the persona of Mary Stuart so utterly that it took me a moment to remember that it was this same performer who only last year was starring in Lady Bird, a modern-day teen at war with her mum. They were so different, although with points in common. This is another excellent performance. But she is one half of a lopsided double-act, and this film’s inability to decide whether Mary and Elizabeth I are enemies or allies means that Margot Robbie’s performance as Elizabeth is nowhere near as confident.
The young widowed Mary arrives back in Scotland from France in 1561, a Catholic claimant to that country’s throne and a proud believer in her additional right to England’s crown, superior to that of the incumbent: Elizabeth I, her cousin and defender of the (Protestant) faith. Mary puts herself under the protection of her dubiously loyal half-brother James, Earl of Moray (James McArdle), and for England her mere presence is an intolerable provocation. It is the beginning of an opaque and deadly strategic confrontation with Elizabeth, something between a duel and also a kind of love affair, or cousinmance, two women who know what it is like to be lonely and surrounded by duplicitous men. Perhaps, like the destroyer’s captain and U-boat commander in a war movie, they have a kind of respect for each other.
William - Cecil - Guy - Pearce - Silky
Advised by courtier William Cecil (Guy Pearce) in silky, nasal tones, Elizabeth embarks on a decades-long game of diplomacy and threat with Mary, in which she is to offer up her own beloved favourite Robert Dudley (Joe Alwyn) as a possible husband for her, whose role would be to subdue and control the Scottish...
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