Mary Queen Of Scots
Man, I am just all about the royal period dramas of late aren’t I? Mary Queen Of Scots has arrived with much fanfare, at least in this part of the world, no doubt because of its lead. Saoirse Ronan has rarely put a foot wrong in the course of her still young career, and has certainly be on a roll in the last few years between Brooklyn, Lady Bird and the under-noticed On Chesil Beach last year. Opposite her is one Hollywood’s true dominaters of this era in Margot Robbie, an actress I have had some good and bad opinions of, but with a juicy role to bite her teeth into here. And in the middle, a somewhat surprising choice in the director’s chair, Josie Rourke, making her film debut having previously had an extensive career with the theatre. Was it a good mix? Was Mary Queen Of Scots the feminist tour de force it had the potential to be? Or another tired historical drama?
In 16th century Britain, two queens rule: Mary (Ronan) in Scotland, beautiful, strong-willed and ambitious and Elizabeth (Robbie) in England, uncertain, jealous, yet still maintaining a royal dignity. The two must navigate many similar and treacherous paths: issues of succession due to their kinship; being pressed by all and sundry to marry; the scheming of advisers who wish to dominate; and toleration of different faiths and persuasions. In the end, there may be no room for two “sister monarchs”.
Just like The Favourite, this isn’t really an historical drama. The subtext of Mary Queen Of Scots is barely that, it’s practically screaming at the viewer in every scene and narrative turn. This isn’t a film about the powerplay between Mary I of Scotland and Elizabeth I of England in the late 16th century: this is about women in the modern world, how they deal with positions of power, and how men try to tear them down. I wondered why some critics described the film as timely in those one sentence reviews that get plastered on posters. Now, it is supremely obvious.
Mary is a monarch caught between various pulls. She’s a Catholic in an increasingly Protestant land, she speaks French as well as she does English and she displays a liberalised attitude towards social mores that most of her countrymen do not share. She might as well be a progressive surrounded by conservatives in any western democracy nowadays, and she’s a woman to boot; something so many of the people she is forced to rely on won’t tolerate in power.
Mary’s story is one of constant betrayal, from various men she either trusts or is dependent on, be it her two-faced half-brother (a reserved James McArdle), husbands (an excellent Jack Lowden) or religious types. She plays the part of a maverick politician, shaking things up. rattling the cages of her neighbours and less loyal subjects, in the belief that shows of strength will trump any associated weakness of her gender, but is, quite literally, outmanned at every other turn, as her squabbling courtiers plot, murder and launch coups at a frightening rate, never really landing on the stability that Mary represents. Even with this environment Mary never turns into a shrinking violet, and maintains a control based on feminine wiles and underhanded tactics of her own as long as she is able.
Ronan is one of the great actors of her generation. Her Mary runs the gambit between strict self-control and passionate anguish, between besotted romance and dead-eyed copulation. Her craft has matured wonderfully, evidenced by the uptake in more adult material that she has embraced in recent roles, both in terms of overt sexuality but also in the way she tackles themes of power, political violence and intimate distrust. She’s immense here, carrying the film when, at times, the script, from House Of Cards creator Beau Willimon, falters a bit.
On the other side of the border there is Elizabeth, who faces different problems. Her position is secure, and she carries the loyalty of her subjects, and not ungrudgingly; yet her issues are personal. She lacks confidence in herself to be a female ruler, and is damaged by the turbulent dichotomy of needing to inhabit masculine roles in order to be a monarch, and wishing for traditionally feminine pursuits at the same time, be it romantic love or motherhood.
Her lack of self-belief is magnified by the return home of Mary, who seems to have everything that Elizabeth lacks in terms of marriage, eventually children and pro-active ability: “having it all” as it were. Elizabeth withdraws from matters of state in the face of such a challenge, wallowing in jealousy and self-pity, never quite passing into the role of an antagonist, and never really becoming a hero either. However, there is a strength is how she rejects the call to become a wife and mother, taking a different path than Mary in how she uses her chastity as a supporting beam to her monarchy.
Robbie is OK. She lacks the skill and magnetism of Ronan, save for in one scene that they share near the conclusion. Her Elizabeth is a subdued person for the most part, and while Robbie has the chops to put out that royal bearing, and obviously looks stunning/eye-catching in terms of costuming and make-up, she’s too pedestrian at other times, not challenging herself in the way her co-star does. Robbie has a limit, and hits it more often than not, and isn’t helped by the film’s increasing focus on the title character, when it initially seemed a more even two-hander.
The two spend the majority of the film very far apart, but their relationship is key. It is said that, too often in today’s world, women end up competing with other women, either of their own volition or at the instigation of men, when they should work with and support each other; Mary Queen Of Scots takes that idea and runs a marathon with it. Time and again we get the feeling that if Mary and Elizabeth simply engaged with other properly, away from the machinations of their advisors, they may well work out a settlement to the benefit of both, over the central matter of the succession, and other things, being, in many ways, the only people who truly understand the others position. For example, on one interesting point the two offer similar sentiments: when the topic of Henry VIII comes up, Mary holds his treatment of marriage in contempt, and Elizabeth is angry at the suggestion she may share his predilection for offing troublesome women: “I am not my father!” she exclaims.
But, time and again, the screw is turned by poisoned whispers. Elizabeth is nudged into supporting rebellion against Mary, Mary is pushed into playing her own manipulative game with Elizbeth on the succession, especially once she produces a child. Both seem exhausted by the effort, but even when they do meet, in a fictionalised climax, that ingrained competition remains: Mary predicts her own demise at Elizabeth’s hands, something Elizabeth is happy to authorise later (don’t think that a spoiler, as the film begins at Mary’s end: Rourke keeps the tension up though).
In that climactic meeting, there are revelations for both women, for Elizabeth in knowing she can be an authoritative ruler needing only obedience and not a husband or children (and that she has no need to fear the rival her male advisors have largely manufactured), and for Mary in realising that he own strength of will simply isn’t enough in the world she inhabits; both an uplifting and depressing final message, ensconced at the core of the larger issue of two women being villainised by the men who are have set the two against each other. If Mary Queen Of Scots has something to say on that score, it’s probably that time’s up.
But there are other themes related to gender and sexual identity worth discussing. Mary’s avowed toleration for all faiths is extended to her almost openly gay courtier Rizzio (Ismael Cruz Cordova) and later she must offer a more begrudging acceptance of her husband’s similar orientation; Mary experiences a sexual awakening of sorts during an oral sex scene, later perverted by more brutal experiences (including an implied off-screen rape to force her into a marriage). And there are even some nods to transgender issues, when Elizabeth posits that she feels herself a man in terms of being monarch, and in terms of refusing marriage.
The film also makes a fairly obvious allusion to modern-day media and populist treatment of female leaders through David Tennant’s John Knox. He has, regrettably, only a few scenes to offer thunderous denunciations of Mary that only a long-term veteran of the Bard would be able to do (a double-shame really, considering the beard he grew for the role) and, in scenes where he leads crowds in rote chanting of insults directed towards the titular queen, one can imagine the faint strains of “Lock her up” in the background. As I said, the subtext is barely that, though I don’t want to give the impression that the film has no subtlety at all: Rourke just lays out her messages clearly from the get-go.
If the film errs it is when it adheres too strictly to the historical record, with a multitude of events in Mary’s life covered, some of them with remarkable swiftness, when the narrative flow would have been better served by their existing. As such the film is just a bit too long for its own good.
It’s an impressive looking feature. The dinginess of Scottish castle compares well on a visual level with the relative opulence of England, and Rourke’s previous career with stage work is largely immaterial: she directs interior scenes with an eye for detail, movement and lighting that is appropriate for the medium being used. In other words, this isn’t just a play that happens to be filmed. Some of the glorious vistas of Scotland, seen so recently in Netflix’s Outlaw King (some connections, with Mary being Robert Bruce’s great times seven granddaughter), make appropriate appearances and the production details can’t be faulted. There are occasional clever touches too, like when Mary gives birth, the blood of the act counter-pointed by Elizabeth working on red ribbon patterns, or the manner in which, even at the moment of their meeting, the two queens are still separated by literal barriers of hazy cloth and make-up.
This is not an historical drama, and anyone thinking it is should realise that Mary was not a liberal feminist, and that the relationship between her and Elizabeth did not culminate in the meeting depicted. Hell, I’ve seen more than one critic and commenter on the film mistake the title character with “Bloody” Mary I, Elizabeth’s predecessor, so it is fair to say that the real Queen Of Scots is not making a huge impact on the public consciousness. Rather, this is allegorical fiction with a bare semblance of historical accuracy, more Heat in its narrative choice and plot direction than a documentary. It’s got some great performances, especially Ronan, it’s well directed and says many thoughtful things about women’s place with men and how certain things in gender relations haven’t changed all that much in 400 years. An historical drama with its feet firmly in the present, it is well worth seeing. Recommended.
(All images are copyright of Universal Pictures).