AFI Fest Review: Mary, Queen of Scots – There Can Be Only One

Saoirse Ronan stars as Mary Stuart in MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS, a Focus Features release.
Credit: Liam Daniel / Focus Features

European History was never my best subject in high school. I probably learned more from watching Cate Blanchett’s Elizabeth movies but I still couldn’t pass a test. Likewise, Mary Queen Of Scots makes another side of that history more palatable than textbooks and pretentious teachers, but I won’t claim I’m retaining it after the credits roll.

Margot Robbie stars as Elizabeth I and Joe Alwyn as Robert Dudley in MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS Credit: Liam Daniel / Focus Features

It’s a race between cousins Mary (Saoirse Ronan) and Elizabeth (Margot Robbie) to produce an heir to the throne. Whoever has one first, their offspring would control the whole UK.

While this is a lot of historical detail, it’s not boring. It’s basically House of Cards for royal politics. You get to watch two smart and savvy women make political maneuvers. Mary goes there against Elizabeth’s health issues. She takes no guff from her court and even takes control of her own husband to secure an heir.

(l-r.) Ismael Cruz Cordova stars as Rizzio, Maria Dragus as Mary Fleming, Izuka Hoyle as Mary Seton and Saoirse Ronan as Mary Stuart in MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS Credit: Liam Daniel / Focus Features

Mary is not all powerful though. She has moments of vulnerability and giggling with the other girls in the dressing chamber. The movie shows the political maneuvering within her court that she can’t control.

Of course, the performances are great. Ronan’s passion for the character is clear as she portrays all the nuances of power and vulnerability she wants to show. Robbie finds some new corners of the Elizabeth story to play too, even though the ultimate Cate Blanchett saga exists.

Ian Hart stars as Lord Maitland, Jack Lowden as Lord Darnley, Saoirse Ronan as Mary Stuart and James McArdle as Earl of Moray in MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS Credit: Liam Daniel / Focus Features

Mary Queen of Scots boasts all the production value of a Hollywood period piece. There are epic shots of the Scottish highlands and grand castle chambers. There’s one battle scene but lots of horseback armies traveling between kingdoms, and lots of authentic costumes.

For people who love Elizabethan era period pieces, Mary Queen Of Scots is a top-tier one. And even for people who aren’t aficionados of this genre, Mary Queen Of Scots makes it accessible and rousing. I wish it had been around to help me with my homework in the’ 90s.