Photo | Focus Features
How can a lavish biopic about feuding royalty look so epic, yet feel so relatable? Perhaps it was the casting of the sublime but natural Saoirse Ronan as “Mary Queen of Scots” that holds the key to immersing modern viewers in a historical drama that, despite all the drawn swords and crowns and battles, is also about the ever-relevant dilemma of a woman trying to decide whether to start a family or focus on work. The struggle between English Queen Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie) and Scottish monarch Mary Stuart is highly specific and uniquely historical, but also, in the hands of these gifted actresses, universal.
For every single lady out there getting tired of people asking you when you’re going to have a kid, find either solace or discouragement in the fact that the Queen of England got this treatment constantly, from her entire empire. In 1561, the return of a young Mary to Scotland has Elizabeth on edge, as Mary has a reasonable claim to the throne and wants Elizabeth to name her as successor. Refusing to get married and biologically give England a successor, the Protestant Elizabeth has much to fear in her formidable Catholic cousin.
These women must raise armies but also juggle suitors. Momentous decisions about who leads a country hang on choices that are also very personal. Elizabeth fears that getting married will weaken her power; all around her, male advisors attempt to control her, and she assumes that any man who agrees to be her husband, but not the king, will be unsatisfied with that limited role. On the other hand, failing to produce an heir is a major liability.
Testing this theory is Mary, who does get married and later pregnant. With these arrangements she experiences all the benefits and drawbacks that Elizabeth so rightly fears, but really, what’s a girl to do? For all their jewels and servants, these queens are really just old-school working women, chasing that elusive work-life balance. Elizabeth even tries to work some of her issues out through crafting, and honestly who hasn’t been there?
The costumes are utterly sumptuous and the period details are convincing, but to really see and understand the emotions governing those who govern others is what makes this film so remarkable. Viewers can imagine facing the same questions we may well have faced in our seemingly different modern lives, but when these characters face them, the tides of history turn. The historical facts may be familiar, but to see Robbie and Ronan consider one another’s motives, and their own, as they circle one another from a distance, is thrilling.
“Mary Queen of Scots” is both historically accurate and uncannily contemporary. While marveling at the Academy Award-nominated costumes, I also could not help but think of Meghan Markle, Hillary Clinton, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, my mom, myself and the universality of the struggles of these seemingly remote historical women. And surrounding both of them are their handmaidens, the only loyal constant they can trust. Today we might call that #SquadGoals.
Although they are cousins, both Mary and Elizabeth refer to one another throughout as “sister,” because they share unique struggles as women attempting to maintain power and control. For lovers of period films, this is a must-see, but the performances also take the story beyond historical facts and on a powerful emotional journey. Dating, family, workplace drama – it’s just the same story, different century, until someone gets beheaded of course.
“Mary Queen of Scots” is currently available to rent.
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