By John H. Foote

This story is by now, very familiar having been told in the film Mary, Queen of Scots (1971) with no less than Vanessa Redgrave and Glenda Jackson, in Elizabeth I (2005) with Helen Mirren and Elizabeth, The Golden Age (2007) with Cate Blanchett. What I am saying, I suppose, is enough already! Surely there are other stories that pit two great women against each other?

Everyone knows the history, cousins, each with a claim to the British throne, divided by their religions, they quietly endure one another. Mary (Saoirse Ronan) is set up as Queen in Scotland, rumours of promiscuity following her from France. Elizabeth (Margot Robbie) is plagued with bouts of small pox, which leave her horribly disfigured.

We all know where this goes. Spain wants Elizabeth out because she champions the Protestant faith, they are willing to have her killing and install the Catholic Mary on the throne.

Elizabeth, aware of being a target does not wish to kill her cousin, a woman with a legal claim to herthrone. Yet what else is she to do when push comes to shove?

The most interesting as peat of the film is the bringing together two of last years Best Actress nominees, Ronan and Robbie, two of the most gifted actresses of their generation.

Ronan has dazzled since Atonement (2007), and The Lovely Bones (2010) both of which she stole from under the nose of her co-stars. She was extraordinary in Hanna (2012), but came into her own in Brooklyn (2015) for which she was nominated for an Oscar as best actress and won the New York Film Critics Award for Best Actress. Last year she was the critic’s darling in the outstanding coming of age, female angst LadyBird (2017) which again nabbed her a nod for Best Actress.

Here as Mary, she is a spitfire, her hair blazing as red as her spirit, a courageous woman seeking what she believes is her birthright. In previous films, Mary has often been an imprisoned woman under guard, living well, but a prisoner nonetheless. Messages were brought to her and sent through a network of spies connected to Spain, who would eventually attack England, losing their great navy to the shallow waters off the channel. Ronan is a very convincing Mary, but because we have seen so many recent versions of the story, much is lost in impact due to familiarity.

Robbie’s is a revelation as Elizabeth, though hers is very much a supporting role. Initially stunning in her beauty, she is terrible scarred by the pox, loses her hair and takes to heavy, white make up, becoming the Virgin Queen. Very aware of her power, yet more aware of what she must do to her cousin, hers is a powerful, regal performance with tinges of guilt and regret.

Robbie came known to audiences and critics in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf Of Wall Street (2013), as Harley Quinn, the most exciting character in Suicide Squad (2016), and last year was nominated alongside Ronan for Best Actress as Tonya Harding in I, Tonya (2017).

Both of these formidable young woman have it in their arsenal to command the screen, yet are not given enough to do here, and have too few scenes together.

The biggest problem with the film is it’s familiar, too much so, from being told too often recently. Yes, we have two great actresses, but they are doing what Cate Blanchett or Helen Mirren or Samantha Morton did before them.

The art direction and especially the costumes are highlights, particularly those of Mary against dour Scotland.

Interesting for the actresses, Robbie might land a supporting actress nomination, the costumes are likely to be nominated but the film will be quickly forgotten.

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