Soarsie Ronan as Mary - expressionistic costume design (by Marvel regular Alexandra Bryne) hints historical accuracy is not the priority.
What’s it about? A fresh take on the Mary vs Elizabeth saga, with the emphasis on political skullduggery (written by House of Cards showrunner Beau Willimon) and the precarious position of being a female ruler.
Mary (Saorise Ronan) has fled the murderous intentions of her former allies, and thrown herself on Elizabeth’s mercy. The English queen attends a secret meeting with her Scottish rival. Their rendezvous is staged in a vast barn, hung with sheets of drying muslin. The undulating fabric walls form a sort of maze around which the two queens pursue each other, hearing the other’s voice, but unable to see them directly - until a climactic face-to-face confrontation.
It's a resonant metaphor for the queens' whole relationship. This is the first time they have actually met. For most of the film, Mary and Elizabeth have been like two duellists; only every feint, lunge and parry have been enacted with words alone. Politely firm letters, commands to armies. To add another layer of distance, these words have often been transcribed by the male courtiers or advisors, each with their own agenda. The only time the queens have seen each other’s faces is when, early in the film, they exchange portraits (Elizabeth’s is notably bigger). What do they actually know of each other, that hasn’t been refracted through the prism of their male courtiers’ ambition? Their communication, like the gauzy labyrinth, has been semi-opaque. Letters are sent, alliances are made or bloodily ruptured, rebellions plotted and put down. But all the two women have been able to discern is the ghostly silhouette of their rival, hundreds of miles away, moving behind screens constructed by others.
The scene also reflects what we, the audience, know about the two queens. Pedants for historical accuracy have decried the scene because their is no evidence the meeting ever took place. This is missing the point Rourke is making. We, as spectators, can never really know what Mary and Elizabeth were 'actually' like, just as we can never really 'know' our current royals (or any celebrity). Painted portraits will be idealised, written accounts will either exalt or condemn their actions. History is a series of representations, a (usually male) interpretation of events and people; historical drama even more so. What we see is the past filtered through these accounts. The only ‘true’ impression we can sense - just like the two queens in this scene - is shadow and movement, powerful presences we can discern but never directly see or know.
Those who liked it said… "Saoirse Ronan’s face looms out of the screen like the figurehead on a warship’s prow: fierce, sharp, defiant." - Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian
Those who didn’t like it said… "boils down the arcane details of centuries-old diplomacy to a personal beef between two massive celebrities." David Sims, The Atlantic
If you like it, check out: Derek Jarman, Peter Greenaway, Julie Taymor