The major divide between the cousins was religious in nature. Elizabeth was a Protestant and Mary a Catholic—a split that was the underlying cause of so many political and military battles of the era. Mary, who was raised in France and arrived in Scotland to rule the country at age 19, was championed as a potential Catholic heir to the English throne, but she was despised by Scottish (and English) Protestants. That issue plays its part in Mary Queen of Scots, but largely in the background; the theological tension is embodied by the character of John Knox (David Tennant), the founder of the Church of Scotland, who speaks in sexist, anti-Catholic screeds and constantly demands Mary’s resignation.
Pushed to the fore is the notion that Mary and Elizabeth were both doomed by their womanhood and the fickle, squabbling men who crowded their courts. Ronan plays Mary as confident but opaque, a leader willing to hear counsel on the delicate politics of her country, but just as prone to rash, sometimes disastrous, decision making. She dominates the movie’s action, riding around the country and pondering whether to take the politic Robert Dudley (Joe Alwyn) or the rakish Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden) as a husband. Elizabeth, meanwhile, is confined to her court and resistant to the idea of marriage because she knows her consort might end up seizing control of her throne.
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Some have compared the film’s structure to Michael Mann’s Heat, which alternates between two figures on opposite sides of a conflict. But Mary becomes the dominant character, given that the movie is so invested in her various romantic dramas. Elizabeth, who remains steadfast in her public image as a virgin leader indebted to no man, gets little to do besides confab with her adviser William Cecil (Guy Pearce) and survive a particularly nasty bout of smallpox. Nevertheless, Robbie’s is the more compelling performance; with her little screen time, she still manages to convey a real sense of resentment over Mary’s status as a more traditional queen (one who marries and bears an heir).
No historical record of such interpersonal bitterness exists, nor of the charged face-to-face confrontation that eventually plays out between Mary and Elizabeth (this film’s version of Heat’s diner conversation between Al Pacino and Robert De Niro). Mary Queen of Scots is a Tudor drama for the modern viewer, boiling down the arcane details of centuries-old diplomacy to a personal beef between two massive celebrities. “Your gifts will be your downfall,” Elizabeth tells Mary ruefully when they meet, commenting on her beauty. “Should you murder me, remember you murder your sister ... and your queen,” Mary shoots back, a crackling bit of one-upmanship that rings hollow.