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‘Mary Queen of Scots’ is unapologetically powerful

Saoirse Ronan is brilliant in the retelling of a classic historical narrative with feminist undertones

<p>Saoirse Ronan puts on an impressive performance in "Mary Queen of Scots" as the title matriarch, in a film notable for its depiction of female power plays.</p>

Saoirse Ronan puts on an impressive performance in "Mary Queen of Scots" as the title matriarch, in a film notable for its depiction of female power plays.

In the age of visionary works such as “Hamilton” and “Hidden Figures,” the world of entertainment has found a niche in the retelling of history from the perspectives of the frequently overlooked. Director Josie Rourke broke into this genre recently with the release of “Mary Queen of Scots,” a historical drama centered around the young Mary Stuart and her cousin Queen Elizabeth I, two women whose legacies were often clouded by the men who tried to control them. 

The film itself was visually stunning, a well-constructed window into the world of 16th-century England and Scotland. Alternating shots of dark, constrained interior spaces and vast open landscapes lent to the feelings of limitation and power which factored so heavily into the film’s themes. The grittiness of the cinematography also helped with this, staring unflinching into the harsh realities of the lives of these two women. There was terrible violence and war, but also moments of deep empathy and kindness. This dual focus on both sides of the story gave the tale a very real, compelling sense of immediacy. The film took its time in approaching each detail with a careful honesty and nuance that allowed the more explicitly heavy scenes to achieve their intended reaction. 

There was nothing forced about this film. Its strength came from its honesty, not necessarily in the historical sense, but in the subtle undertones that drove each moment. It played out less like a typical period piece and more like a precautionary tale about the balance of power — glazing over some of the more factual aspects of the story to shift the focus toward the emotional complexities of living as a powerful woman in a time that despised them. Greed, jealousy and fear surrounded the two queens, driven largely by the men in their courts who were not comfortable with the women in charge. Audiences leave this film not with an array of historical facts about the lives of Mary and Elizabeth, but rather with a richer understanding of the struggles they faced, many of which are still faced by women today. 

In this world of betrayal and deception, lead actress Saoirse Ronan shone as a beacon of hope through the role of Mary. Her performance was stunning, approached with a fierce compassion that perfectly captured the many sides of the infamous queen. When matched with the equally powerful Margot Robbie — who played Queen Elizabeth I — the film was imbued with a heightened sense of immediacy and tension, which made up for some of the more slowly-paced moments of their individual stories. The supporting cast also brought another level of complexity to the film, making up the backbone of the queens’ opposition. 

Instead of taking a direct, harsh approach to this historical narrative, director Rourke found her footing in the construction of a film that used history as a vessel for questions about women and power. This film was refreshingly feminist in the sense that it acknowledged the immense power and strength of these historical figures without discrediting their other qualities. These women found autonomy not just in political authority but also in motherhood, kindness and friendship — valuable and powerful sources of strength that are sometimes overlooked in film. Through visionary direction, the dynamic story of “Mary Queen of Scots” was able to look past the labels given by history and create a more nuanced and three-dimensional representation of the lives of two immensely powerful queens.