At first, stage director Josie Rourke’s movie debut “Mary Queen of Scots” feels like the sort of dry monarchy drama that “The Favourite” rightly taught us to despise.
Give it time — about long enough to realize you’ll never remember everybody’s name, and don’t really need to — and this costume drama finds its groove in its bold contrasts of the two queens at its center.
Up north is Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan), who lays her claim to the Scottish throne in the early 16th century, in spite of resistance because she’s a woman and a Catholic in a patriarchal Protestant country. Down in London is Queen Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie), who fears a civil war will brew if she lets Mary amass too much power.
Mary makes an offer to Elizabeth: She will acknowledge Elizabeth as sovereign over Scotland as well as England, if Elizabeth repays that loyalty by naming Mary her successor to the throne. Elizabeth rejects the idea, and makes a counter-proposal: An arranged marriage between Mary and the English nobleman Robert Dudley (Joe Alwyn), who is also Elizabeth’s lover.
When Dudley refuses to play along, Mary decides to wed someone else in the nobility, the rakish Henry Darnley (Jack Lowden). Mary’s marriage, and her subsequent pregnancy, enrage Elizabeth, because it means Mary has the one thing Elizabeth has been unable to provide: An heir.
The script by Beau Willimon, who created the American “House of Cards,” provides the expected dialogue of royal counsels and dissenters, which gives the likes of Guy Pearce and a heavily bearded David Tennant some scenery to chew. But it’s Ronan as the headstrong Mary and Robbie as the fragile Elizabeth who take command as the movie progresses, twinned performances that run parallel tracks toward a powerful collision.
Rourke, who has been artistic director at London’s Donmar Warehouse theater since 2012, applies that stage knowhow to some striking set pieces. The best of all that meeting between Mary and Elizabeth, in which both queens recognize the formidable presence of the other, even when they’re not supposed to be seeing each other. Ultimately, Ronan prevails in the battle of screen dominance — it’s her character’s name in the title, after all — but Robbie gives as good as she gets.
‘Mary Queen of Scots’
Opened December 7 in select cities; opens Friday, December 21, at the Broadway Centre Cinemas (Salt Lake City), Megaplex Jordan Commons (Sandy) and Megaplex at The District (South Jordan). Rated R for some violence and sexuality. Running time: 124 minutes.