In a wicked display of tension and percolating drama, Josie Rourke‘s smartly effective and intoxicating “Mary Queen of Scots” showcases two grandiose performances from Academy Award nominees Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie. With a sumptuous backdrop of beautiful productions and stunning costumes, the film makes the most of its subconscious outlook on women’s roles in history and where they are today. Rourke’s sensitive yet firm direction opens up new realms of discussion that would be lost with another filmmaker at the helm. Almost echoing the debut of the great Sam Mendes when he dropped onto the scene with “American Beauty,” Rourke portrays the British monarchs in a raw and relatable style.

Mary Queen of Scots,” tells the story of Mary Stuart’s (Ronan) attempt to overthrow her cousin Elizabeth I (Robbie), Queen of England.  With the royal power to lose and gain, Mary and Elizabeth wrestle with their own places in history where one is condemned before facing execution.

Guy Pearce stars as William Cecil and Margot Robbie as Queen Elizabeth in MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS, a Focus Features release.
Credit: Liam Daniel / Focus Features

In the playground of costume-period dramas, the genre with the most difficulty connecting to mainstream audiences, Rourke’s film is extensively accessible and exciting. Her direction, partnered with screenwriter Beau Willimon, fixate on the human side of two compelling figures. When focusing on Mary Stuart, we are transfixed into a world of entitlement yet respect for one’s own man and woman. Longing for power, Mary handles a world in which, even when a woman is the head of power, a man is turning the neck, with or without her consent. One of Willimon’s greatest achievements comes in showcasing the frailty and insecurity of Queen Elizabeth, a monarch that has been explored in film and television more times than should be allowed. Willimon’s portrayal of this powerful Queen shows her at her most delicate, albeit sacrificing some of history’s more exciting highlights. This is all exasperated by the two women that portray these fiery figures.

Saoirse Ronan stars as Mary Stuart in MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS, a Focus Features release.
Credit: Liam Daniel / Focus Features

Saoirse Ronan is an effortless force, showcasing once again that she is one of our most gifted and trusted actresses working today. The 24-year-old, who has found her fair share of diverse roles over her short career, turns in another outstanding deliverance of the ravishing Mary. Weaving from adolescence to a fully realized adult actress, Ronan continues to push the boundaries of her greatness, outdoing every role that precedes another.

Margot Robbie, the recent Oscar nominee for the luminously vibrant “I, Tonya,” is once again, luminously vibrant. Robbie is sensationally present in her role as Queen Elizabeth, a way that doesn’t allow any comparison to Cate Blanchett’s iconic interpretation in 1998.  Robbie finds the beating heart of a beloved figure and ultimately makes it her own.

In her directorial debut, Josie Rourke can go toe-to-toe with any filmmaker working today.  With sensitivity and grace, Rourke paints a portrait that maintains its grip on its subjects.  A woman whose background has found respect and adoration in theatre, her staging of scenes feels expectedly familiar of any Broadway production experienced in New York or London.

Ian Hart stars as Lord Maitland, Jack Lowden as Lord Darnley, Saoirse Ronan as Mary Stuart and James McArdle as Earl of Moray in MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS, a Focus Features release. Credit: Liam Daniel / Focus Features

For a first-time feature film director, Rourke assembles an A-list of technical geniuses to bring this story to life. James Merified and Gina Cromwell‘s production and set designs are a luxurious treat for the eyes as Alexandra Byrne‘s costumes bring realism and emotion to two dynamite personalities. Max Richter‘s refined and sophisticated music showcases a historical roller coaster that we can only imagine in the real context of the actual events.

Chris Dickens‘ editing work, unfortunately, ends up being the film’s pitfall.  The Oscar winner of “Slumdog Millionaire” fails more than he succeeds in highlighting the film’s magic. While we spend a heavy amount of time with Mary Stuart, as we should in a film titled, “Mary Queen of Scots,” Dickens’ choices to cut away at certain moments stops the film in its tracks. Transitions don’t always feel natural, while some scenes feel overplayed and overstayed.

Mary Queen of Scots” is a bold, stylistic work of art, that sinks its teeth in you as time passes. Since its initial screening weeks ago, the film continues to be recollected, imagined, and discussed within the inner circles of my own film community. It has more to offer in multiple viewings, which could find itself in esteemed company as a slow burn that amounts to a cinematic fire in years to come, likely becoming an artistic, focal point of the 2018 film year.

“Mary Queen of Scots” is distributed by Focus Features and opens in theaters on Dec. 7.

GRADE(★★★½)

Be sure to check out the Official Oscar Predictions Page to see where “MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS” ranks among the contenders!