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'Mary Queen of Scots' review: Saoirse Ronan rules in the title role

Saoirse Ronan stars as Mary Stuart in "Mary

Saoirse Ronan stars as Mary Stuart in "Mary Queen of Scots." Credit: Focus Features/Liam Daniel

PLOT A young monarch struggles for power against the formidable Queen Elizabeth I.

CAST Saoirse Ronan, Margot Robbie, Guy Pearce

RATED R (bloody violence, sexuality)


PLAYING AT Angelika Film Center and the Paris Theater in Manhattan. Opens locally later this month.

BOTTOM LINE A ferocious Ronan in the title role helps pull us through the highly convoluted plot.

After two well-regarded movies starring Cate Blanchett as Queen Elizabeth I — 1998’s “Elizabeth” and 2007’s “Elizabeth: The Golden Age” — the producers at Working Title films have released a biopic of her possibly even more complicated cousin: “Mary Queen of Scots.”

For intrigue, rivalry, betrayal and bloodshed, Mary's story is hard to beat — and often hard to follow. In this handsome new costume drama, directed by theater veteran Josie Rourke, the lead role goes to Saiorse Ronan, a fine choice to play an imperious young monarch whose ambition causes her to literally lose her head. It's Ronan, as well as Margot Robbie in an arresting turn as a wretched but wily Elizabeth, who keeps us watching even as the twists in Mary's narrative become increasingly, almost maddeningly complicated.

Written by Beau Willimon (as showrunner for “House of Cards,” he surely knows about intrigue) from a book by historian John Guy, “Mary Queen of Scots” presents us with a victim through and through: of fate (she was widowed at 18), of anti-Catholic bigotry, of ruthless machinators (Guy Pearce is subtly menacing as Elizabeth's adviser, William Cecil). To a modern-day viewer, Mary's life often looks like a game of cricket, unfolding against a backdrop of baffling and arbitrary rules. What we can understand is this: Whichever monarch gets pregnant first will possess the heir to the throne.

In that race, Mary bets on a charming horse, Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden), who reveals his true stripes only after the wedding ceremony. In one of this movie's most eyebrow-raising claims, Darnley turns out be gay — and immediately sleeps with Mary's favorite musician, David Rizzio. Ismael Cruz Cordovo plays this real-life and well-established court figure as a tragic, transgender urchin, the kind we might find in “Rent.” There may be a historical basis for all this, but it doesn't scan here, especially when Rizzio is later accused of adultery with Mary.

By contrast, the film's final meeting between the two queens is pure fiction, though it rings true. It leaves us with the sense that Mary had a bold spirit and a crusader's sense of justice. In Ronan's fierce performance, we also see the fatal flaw of pride.

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