‘Mary Queen of Scots’ is a fresh, feminist take on a story you think you know and Saoirse Ronan is brilliant

Saoirse Ronan is great, as always.

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Saoirse Ronan is great, as always.
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Focus Features

“Mary Queen of Scots” is one of the most surprising movies of the year.

The movie, which stars Saoirse Ronan, Margot Robbie, Guy Pearce and David Tennant, starts off slow but is a thrilling historical drama that stands out from others in its genre due to its relevant feminist perspective and a fresh take on characters we’ve seen on screen over and over again. It’s one of the best movies of the year, though we weren’t expecting it to be at all.

Based on John Guy’s biography Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart (which you, like me, may purchase as you leave the theater), that suggests Mary (Ronan) and Queen Elizabeth I (Robbie) met in real life, the film tells the the story of Mary’s tragic life starting from her return to Scotland (she grew up in France) in 1561 up until her execution in 1587.

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The film centers on Mary and Elizabeth’s fragile, long distance relationship but depicts neither character as a villain. Instead, it portrays two smart women in power who try to do the right thing for their people. But both, especially Mary, consistently fail because of the men threatened by their gender.

Why you should see it: It has a fresh perspective on a story you think you know.

The movie tells the story of Mary Stuart without judgment.

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The movie tells the story of Mary Stuart without judgment.
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Focus Features

“Mary Queen of Scots” is both exactly what you’d expect from an Elizabethan era drama and exactly what you weren’t expecting. It has a intricate costumes, a relevant feminist message, and an emphasis on long exchanges of dialogue in dimly lit castles instead of epic battles on gorgeous European exteriors (exactly what any other movie would do, a recent example being “Outlaw King”).

By focusing on the tragic life of Mary Stuart, a character usually depicted as a one-note villain with little to no empathy or character development, “Mary Queen of Scots” is a necessary take that was fittingly directed by a woman. Josie Rourke’s feature debut establishes her style and suggests she is on her way to becoming one of the best directors in the industry. Please hire her for everything.

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In addition to Rourke’s sharp eye, the thoughtful screenplay by Beau Willimon (creator of Netflix’s “House of Cards”) mixes everything people love about period dramas with a modern twist that focuses on character over spectacle, which makes the film better than I expected.

What’s hot: The empathetic take on a woman wronged by history

The hairstyles in this movie are spot on.

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The hairstyles in this movie are spot on.
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Focus Features

Because of Mary Stuart’s fate (major history spoiler: she gets beheaded for conspiracy to murder her cousin Queen Elizabeth), she’s often been portrayed on TV and in film and in popular culture as one-dimensional caricature reduced to sexist tropes, with the audience given no insight or knowledge about anything about her life apart from her plan to murder the queen. And listen: Her life sucked. Both of her husbands died, she constantly lived in fear of men overthrowing her power (including her own brother), and her own country took her child away from her.

But “Mary Queen of Scots” changes things. Given more context on the complex life of Mary Stuart, who spent the end of her life imprisoned, there’s a better understanding of who she was and why she ended up in a position where she was driven to kill her cousin. We are not condoning conspiring to murder queens! But Mary’s journey throughout the film is rough, and her perspective isn’t something that’s been told in such a thoughtful way.

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The character has never been given emotional depth or one sliver of empathy, but Willimon’s layered writing combined with Rourke’s clever eye help Ronan carry the movie and a flawed character in one of her best performances to date.

What’s not: It’s a slow burn.

Margot Robbie wears a prosthetic nose to play Queen Elizabeth I.

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Margot Robbie wears a prosthetic nose to play Queen Elizabeth I.
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Focus Features

At first, it doesn’t feel like “Mary Queen of Scots” will be a great movie. It starts off incredibly slow, and with all the set up, outlandish costumes, countryside shots, and dialogue you’d expect in an Elizabethan era film.

The first hour of the film doesn’t drag, but just doesn’t feel particularly unique. But once, sadly, Mary’s life gets more and more tragic, the movie gets more thrilling and the pace speeds up, and it manages to make long scenes of dialogue more enjoyable.

The bottom line: “Mary Queen of Scots” is an excellent examination of two smart and powerful women.

Mary and Elizabeth meet in person briefly.

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Mary and Elizabeth meet in person briefly.
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Focus Features

There are a lot of movies out this holiday season, including “Aquaman,” “Mary Poppins Returns,” “Vice,” “On the Basis of Sex,” and more. But “Mary Queen of Scots” is a necessary, timely historical drama that you should experience in theaters.

Grade: B+

“Mary Queen of Scots” is in theaters December 7. Watch the trailer:

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