The rivalry between Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots has fascinated generations of scholars, playwrights and filmmakers, and provided great roles for Katharine Hepburn and Florence Eldridge (in 1936’s Mary of Scotland); Glenda Jackson and Vanessa Redgrave (1971’s Mary, Queen Of Scots); and Cate Blanchett and Samantha Morton (2007’s Elizabeth: The Golden Age).
Now, 431 years on from Mary’s 1587 execution, her story is retold in Mary Queen Of Scots, a new take on her turbulent life that sees recent Oscar nominees Saoirse Ronan (Lady Bird) and Margot Robbie (I, Tonya) go head to head once more.
Based on John Guy’s 2004 biography, My Heart Is My Own, the film has Ronan’s Mary and Robbie’s Bess as rivals in both power and love, fighting for their sovereignty and independence in a masculine world. Only one queen can win this game of thrones, a web of betrayal and conspiracy spun by the calculating Sir William Cecil (Guy Pearce), and the murderous Earl of Bothwell (Martin Compston). Throw in David Tennant as Mary’s fierce critic, John Knox, Joe Alwyn as Elizabeth’s favourite, Robert Dudley, and Jack Lowden as Mary’s ambitious husband, Lord Darnley, and the result is a heady brew sure to reignite interest in one of the Elizabethan era’s most intriguing relationships.
Having written the play on which George Clooney’s The Ides Of March was based, and helped create the US version of House Of Cards, writer Beau Willimon was eager to tackle a saga he describes as being “a notorious story for centuries”. Josie Rourke, the award-winning theatre director here making her film-directing debut, was similarly compelled to make a film “about sisterhood, women in power, and leadership”, certain the four centuries-old drama would have “incredible modern resonance”. “To watch Mary go through an extraordinary struggle to hold onto power in Scotland, to make her own choices, to be ambitious, and also be vulnerable as a leader and a woman, was an incredible opportunity,” she reveals. Ronan believes the film tells “a universal story” about a woman “trying to find her way and purpose in a very mixed-up world”. (The Irish actress, who has been attached to the project since 2012, worked with acclaimed British choreographer Wayne McGregor to nail her character’s regal bearing.)
Robbie calls the film “a complicated love story” between rulers whose sisterly bond is sorely tried because “each one’s survival threatens the other”. (Robbie is almost unrecognisable here; she sports a ginger wig, prosthetic nose and heavily powdered face – a look that made her feel “inhuman” on set.) With Gladiator’s BAFTA-winning cinematographer, John Mathieson, behind the camera; Oscar-winner Alexandra Byrne designing the costumes and fellow Academy Award winner Jenny Shircore supplying the hair and make-up, Mary Queen Of Scots is already shaping up to be a major awards contender. Its biggest achievement, however, may well be to shine fresh light on Mary herself – a woman who, according to Pearce, was “a queen to the last fibre of her body and soul”.