Saoirse Ronan plays Mary Stuart in “Mary Queen of Scots.” (Liam Daniel/Focus Features)
Movie critic

Rating:

Did you find “The Favourite” just too weird, too raunchy, too . . . too? Perhaps “Mary Queen of Scots” will be more your cup.

The story of the titular Titian-haired monarch — who returned to her native Scotland in 1561 to take her place on the throne — is just as filled with palace intrigue, power plays and tetchy, proto-feminist frenemy-ship. But even as it indulges its share of “Favourite”-level revisionism, this engaging period drama plays it relatively straight in terms of the courtly manners and scheming competition viewers might expect from a good, old-fashioned Tuds-and-Studs showdown.

The “Tud,” of course, is Tudor descendant Elizabeth I, who when Mary makes her claim in Scotland must navigate the development both as a carefully tended alliance and a serious danger to her own all-powerful standing as the rightful English sovereign. Based on John Guy’s award-winning biography, “Mary Queen of Scots” focuses mostly on the young, widowed Mary Stuart as she plots her consolidation of power, considers various suitors, navigates a disastrous marriage and communicates with her cousin Elizabeth in a series of diplomatically worded letters dripping with unspoken parries and thrusts.

Directed by Josie Rourke from a script by “House of Cards” writer Beau Willimon, “Mary Queen of Scots” often feels more dutiful than imaginative, despite some nontraditional casting choices (Gemma Chan and Adrian Lester, who are of Asian and African descent respectively, have prominent roles in Elizabeth’s court; the Puerto Rican actor Ismael Cruz Córdova plays Mary’s Italian friend, David Rizzio). The drama, such as it is, transpires in an episodic collection of expository scenes meant to impart huge amounts of information with efficiency and clarity, whether it’s an unrecognizable David Tennant railing against Queen Mary as Protestant cleric John Knox, or Guy Pearce’s William Cecil pouring both poison and prudence into Elizabeth’s ear.


Margot Robbie as Queen Elizabeth I. (Liam Daniel/Focus Features)

The net effect is a film that’s not particularly cinematic (Rourke is a lauded theater director in London) but is intriguing and handsomely conceived nonetheless. The most spirited heart and poignant soul of “Mary Queen of Scots” are Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie as Mary and Elizabeth, whose contradictory relationship accommodates hostility, jealousy, admiration and sisterly love with affecting seamlessness. Outfitted in a marvelous set of elaborate wigs, Ronan portrays Mary as both gutsy and guileless, an impulsive but disarmingly straightforward leader with a refreshing common touch. And Robbie — who plays Elizabeth both during and after a disfiguring bout of smallpox — brings stores of empathy to a monarch who at one point wistfully notes that she’s become “more man than woman,” her emotional and sexual needs subsumed by the state she rules and comes to personify.

Although Elizabeth and Mary never actually met, “Mary Queen of Scots” doesn’t let that fact get in the way of a scene late in the film that’s staged too cleverly by half. Still, the deep feelings that coursed between these figures make for an absorbing, thought-provoking meditation on one of history’s great what-ifs: Had these two fascinating, formidable women been allowed to collaborate without petty male egos and religious feuds swirling around them, heaven knows what they might have accomplished.

R. At area theaters. Contains some violence and sexuality. 123 minutes.