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A couple of weeks ago, Kris and I cast an eye over a number of upcoming prestige films still seeking US distribution as they head into the fall festival season. One of the longer shots for awards consideration on that list was “MARY Queen of Scots” (no, I don’t know what the capitalization is about either), a French-made take on the life of the ill-fated 16th-century royal, in which the eponymous Mary Stuart is played by relative newcomer Camille Rutherford. It’s a role that landed Vanessa Redgrave a Best Actress Oscar nomination for 1971’s rather stodgy “Mary Queen of Scots,” and the Academy’s taste for British royalty hasn’t waned since.
We’ll know at Toronto whether Thomas Imbach’s film has any crossover potential or not. If it doesn’t, however, you won’t have to wait too long for another version of the story to come down the pike – called, wait for it, “Mary Queen of Scots” – and this one has far baitier credentials. Heavyweight British production company Working Title announced today that Danish director Susanne Bier is in talks to direct the film, with 19-year-old Irish star Saoirse Ronan already attached to play the title role.
Working Title know their onions in this department. In 1998, they had significant success with “Elizabeth”: despite a (then) little-known star and director, the lavish, sexed-up biopic landed seven Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Actress. (Cate Blanchett repeated the feat nine years later for the less successful follow-up “Elizabeth: The Golden Age.”) The Virgin Queen, of course, plays a vital role in Mary Stuart’s own story; the role hasn’t been cast yet, though by hiring “Elizabeth” scribe Michael Hirst to co-write the screenplay with acclaimed British playwright Penelope Skinner, Working Title appear to be aiming for some measure of continuity between their Elizabethan biopics.
Ronan is an interesting choice to play this tragedy-laden historical figure, who was imprisoned for 18 years, and finally executed, by Elizabeth I after an unsuccessful attempt to seize the throne. It’s not clear yet which period of her life the film will focus on, but Ronan is the approximate age Mary Stuart was when she was widowed for the first time, six years before her reign as Queen of Scotland came to an end. The young actress has the right kind of limpid intensity for the role, and this presents a meaty opportunity for her to establish herself in the adult sphere – even if, nearly six years after her Oscar-nominated breakthrough in “Atonement,” she’s still a strikingly precocious presence.
Bier also stands to gain much from this project. The melodrama-inclined director, whose film “In a Better World” took the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar three years ago, has been chasing an English-language career for some time now. Despite commendable performances, 2007’s “Things We Lost in the Fire” sank largely without trace. Her latest, “Serena,” also featured in our list of homeless prestige projects: that the Depression-era drama hasn’t yet shown up on the festival calendar, despite the red-hot star pairing of Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, makes it something of a question mark. Could working in Britain do the trick? It worked for her compatriot Lone Scherfig (“An Education”). It’d be interesting to see how Bier, who has an appropriately mainstream sensibility, fares on a large-scale costume drama: she’s not an extravagant stylist in Shekhar Kapur vein, but has the human interest necessary to keep history from getting lost amid the ruffles.
Working Title is readying “Mary Queen of Scots” for a 2014 shoot. More as we know it.
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