In the tradition of costume dramas, “Mary Queen of Scots,” directed by Josie Rourke from a screenplay by Beau Willimon, covers the historical territory but only lights up on occasion. There is a modern tinge, especially with Mary in a candid sex scene, and then when she finally confronts her rival, England’s Queen Elizabeth, in a face-to-face meeting that is never supposed to have occurred in real life.

When it comes down to basics, the film’s main attractions are the performances by Saorise Ronan as Mary and Margot Robbie as Elizabeth. The film begins with Mary’s execution, then flashes back to her life in Scotland, when she arrives from France. What evolves is her power struggle, her giving birth to a son, and eventually winding up being vilified as a “whore” and escaping Scotland for England, where she has claim to the English throne. Always there is context of religious conflict. Mary is catholic, Elizabeth protestant.

Ronan plays Mary rather blandly and stoically early on, but gradually heats up her performance as the woes thicken. The meat of the film is the confrontation in England, with Mary in the countryside and Elizabeth journeying to see her. Elizabeth is troubled but stern. Her offer to Mary is protection if Mary doesn’t persist in her claim to the throne. But Mary defiantly stands her ground despite the peril she faces.

We later see Elizabeth very conflicted over what she feels she must do but finally signing the execution order. And for Mary it is off to the chopping block and the toll history takes.

The film is modern in the sense of emphasizing strong women in the realm of men trying to be dominant. And it is interesting to see Mary sexually demanding intercourse when her bedmate can’t perform with enough of an erection and goes down on her. But she is furious and wants more. Is that historical progress on screen? You be the judge. A Focus Features release. Reviewed December 7, 2018.

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