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‘Mary Queen of Scots’ takes the crown as one of the best directorial debuts of the year.

Written by: Fiona Underhill, CC2K Staff Writer

As a theater director, Josie Rourke is known for her Shakespeare adaptations, including Coriolanus (starring Tom Hiddleston), as well as critically-acclaimed productions of The Vote and The Weir. As the first female director to be appointed Artistic Director of a major London theater (the Donmar Warehouse), she has programmed works by Phillydia Lloyd (who directed an all-female Shakespeare Trilogy) as well as Lindsey Turner, Blanche McIntyre and Polly Findlay. Rourke now makes her feature-film debut with a historical work based on the rivalry between sisters Queen Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots and it feels completely free of the confines of a theater stage. Rourke juggles the claustrophobia of a small circular court (made up of Mary’s advisers) with wide-shots of stunning Scottish mountains and beaches with skill and she uses close-ups to show the stark contrasts between the two sisters. Whilst the acting and costumes are generating some ‘Oscar buzz,’ it is frustrating that the direction will probably be over-looked, because this is the main strength of this film.

Mary Queen of Scots spends its run-time cutting between Mary in Scotland and Elizabeth in England and these two powerful women are almost always shown surrounded by men. Elizabeth’s main adviser is William Cecil (Guy Pearce) and there is also the love of her life, Robert Dudley (Joe Alwyn, currently also appearing in The Favourite), although Elizabeth is determined to remain without a husband in order to preserve her power. Mary has spent time in France, been widowed at eighteen and is now in the home of her half-brother James (James McArdle), where the men of the household, including Lord Maitland (Ian Hart) have a hard time adjusting to their female ruler. One of the most put-out-of-joint is John Knox (an almost unrecognizable David Tennant) who refuses to be cowed by a papist (Mary was born Catholic) and a woman. Lord Randolph (Adrian Lester) is sent from England to Scotland to try and negotiate various matters with Mary, including the issue of who she should now marry.

In a period film, the costumes, hair and make-up are always going to be one of the highlights. Mary Queen of Scots spans twenty-five years and the fashions and hair-styles change during this time, a detail that not every period film pays attention to. There is a scene early on with the men of Elizabeth’s court filling a corridor, all clad in black. It would be a cliche to have Elizabeth part the dark waves in a brightly colored dress, but instead she is in grey, showing only a subtle difference from the men. As time goes on, Elizabeth’s hair and make-up become more extreme and artificial, as she paints a mask of immovable white porcelain, surrounded by a helmet of stiff red curls. By contrast, Mary’s hair and make up are much softer, more subtle and natural. Ronan’s youth is emphasized by having her freckles exposed (as Gerwig did in Lady Bird, by allowing her to be shown with acne). Mary is shown more than once in a royal blue – including a scene where she leads her men into battle with armor encasing her dress, asserting her authority.

One of the best scenes is when there is a Midsummer Night’s Dream-style play happening in Mary’s court, but the audience (including Mary and Randolph) are on ‘stage,’ interacting with the performers. As Mary and Randolph negotiate and as each gains the upper hand, as if in a game of chess, they literally dance around one another. The lines between artifice and reality are blurred, as are the lines between the truths and falsehoods these two powerful characters are spinning one another. This theatrical experience is a stark contrast to the dance at Mary’s wedding to Henry Darnley (Jack Lowden), where the men are regimental and militaristic. The lighting and production design also emphasize the juxtapositions – not just between the Scottish and English courts, but also Mary’s court (full of music and colour) with the austere church where John Knox tries to rally the people against their Queen. Lighting combines skillfully with costume design in a pivotal scene where the men of Mary’s court try to turn her husband against her. The black-clad men surround the blonde Darnley (in a white night-shirt) in an arrangement reminiscent of a Renaissance painting.

The characterization and performances are, of course, major contributions to the success of Mary Queen of Scots. Margot Robbie has the more difficult task, in the supporting role of the spiky, unhappy Elizabeth. The Queen is very much portrayed as having to make herself as manly as possible and that she struggles with longing for a family. She is shown as desiring romance with Dudley and a baby, but feels she must deny herself these things, to keep any potential threats to her throne at bay. Crazy Rich Asians’ Gemma Chan is under-used as one of Elizabeth’s ladies-in-waiting, Bess. Elizabeth keeps a formality and distance, even with the women around her – they are often behind a barrier of curtains, arches or windows. Ronan gets to have more fun as the relaxed and radiant Mary, who has a real intimacy with her gentlewomen and also a close confidante – David Rizzio (Ismael Cruz Cordova) who plays a pivotal role in Mary’s relationship with her husband. There are scenes involving Mary’s body and sexuality that could have only come from a woman filmmaker and there is a refreshing frankness which feels rare for a period piece, which are frequently accused of being stuffy or like museum artifacts. The diversity on show, in both the casting of many people of color and also in the story-line featuring LGBTQ characters is another reason this feels like a different type of historical film. One of the most impressive performances comes from Jack Lowden as Mary’s suitor, then husband Henry Darnley. Lowden has had some small supporting roles in films such as Dunkirk and Denial, as well as TV work in the likes of War and Peace and has been directed on the stage by Rourke before. He really shines here, taking us on an emotional journey from the cocky young cad he is at the beginning.

There is a dynamism in many of the scenes which adds visual interest. The scene where Elizabeth has the pox and her ladies-in-waiting scream that a hallway be emptied of fencing men who might look at her could have come straight from The Favourite. There is a conversation between Elizabeth and Cecil in which she says; “you’re the closest thing I have to a wife” and it is only later when the camera pans out that we realize this has taken place on the roof of Elizabeth’s stunning home. The battle is filmed in a location reminiscent of Lord of the Rings – a forest on top of a hill, over-looking a river and bridge, adding visual interest and layers. This also allows Mary to over-look the scene and make decisions about the men doing her bidding, in real time. As Elizabeth’s mental health deteriorates, she becomes very invested in quilling, particularly with red flowers and this is inter-cut with the scene of Mary’s childbirth. There are clear directorial choices being made here and they are assured for a debut.

Mary Queen of Scots may easily slip under the radar, so close to the holidays and in a busy awards season. However, it deserves more attention than it is getting because it is a well-directed, risk-taking, unusual period film which makes some bold choices and mostly pulls them off. This film has a visual and editorial flare which deserves recognition, just as much as the performances and costumes. Josie Rourke is now an exciting film director as well as theater director and her next work should be highly anticipated. A film which is fit for a Queen…or even two.

Rating: 4 Stars out of 5