Cast: Saorise Ronan, Margot Robbie, Jack Lowden, Joe Alwyn, David Tennant, Guy Pearce
Director: Josie Rourke
Writer: Beau Willimon
Last year saw the release of a superb historical drama which inventively used its period setting to cleverly and profoundly interrogate contemporary attitudes about women in power, the personal and political rivalries that compel them and what they can achieve within the sexist boundaries confining them. That film was The Favourite, a witty and stunningly original picture that demonstrated just how much room there still is for reinvention and experimentation in the costume drama, a genre that some feel has already been exhaustively treaded. Mary Queen of Scots has similar ambitions to the Yorgos Lanthimos film. It relates the tale of two female rulers at a time when such a concept was unheard of, the complex relationship they shared, one that encompassed familial affection, ideological enmity and feminine empathy, and how their bond was eventually destroyed by the interference of their male subjects. The film sets its sights on the world today by showcasing how little has actually changed since this point in history where irreconcilable partisan conflicts dominated the political sphere and how the men who led these movements could only agree on one thing: that women should be kept from exercising any authority or control by any means necessary. While it does this quite well, what sets this film apart from The Favourite is that this it is not ultimately daring or nonconformist enough to come across as more than ‘another costume drama’.
Penned by Beau Willimon, who specialises in writing soap operas disguised as political thrillers (whether intentional or not), the film mainly concerns itself with the titular Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan). Having lived in France for almost her entire life, the nineteen-year-old Catholic widow returns to Scotland in 1561 to claim the crown she inherited as an infant. This does not bode well for many of the men who have been governing Scotland in her absence, not least of which is her half-brother the Earl of Moray (James McArdle), who feel that they have been doing just fine without their teenage queen. Another such objector is John Knox (David Tennant), the Protestant cleric who feels it is against the will of God for a woman, never mind a Catholic woman, to rule. The one who potentially has the most to lose however is Mary’s 25-year-old cousin, Queen Elizabeth of England (Margot Robbie). While Mary is young, renowned for her beauty and outspoken in her feminine desires and ambitions, Elizabeth is world-weary, her make up hides a face riddled with smallpox and she remains unmarried and without children, choosing to instead be seen by her subjects as a man rather than a woman. The two have never met but often exchange letters in which they discuss their shared goals, their opposing values and their mutual understanding of what it is like to rule in a world where men see their gender as a threat.
Ronan delivers a commanding performance as a compassionate but fiery queen who is determined to rule no matter what the men who oppose her have to say about it. She has the kind of steely resolve and bold fearlessness that make her a force to be reckoned with, but she has a softer side as well. Being a young woman of little experience, she possesses the same kind of teenage naiveté that Ronan’s previous characters in such films as Brooklyn and Lady Bird had that offsets her more mature qualities and makes her seriously unprepared, if no less capable and determined, to face the challenges awaiting her. With her youth also comes this vigour and progressive idealism that make her stand out and seem all the more threatening to her older and more conservative contemporaries. Her ideals are as foreign to her kingdom and subjects (that the Irish Ronan doesn’t quite nail the Scottish accent is a nice, little way of emphasising her foreignness) as they are liberal and enlightened and, while perhaps a little too 21st century, do all the same succeed in serving their purpose, which is to depict Mary as a woman ahead of her time. Amongst Mary’s confidantes is David Rizzio (Ismael Cruz Córdova), a queer, black man with a proclivity for cross-dressing whom Mary loves and accepts with all her heart. There are no prizes for guessing how well his life in the dogmatic realm of 16th century Protestant Scotland turns out.
Standing opposite her is Elizabeth, probably the more challenging of the two roles. Presented as a mirror image of the Scottish queen, we learn that even as she enjoys greater popularity and exercises more wisdom Elizabeth still suffers from many of the same anxieties as Mary and understands her plight in the way that only another queen possibly could. While more experienced than her peer and more secure in her royal position, Elizabeth feels just as confined and suffocated by the burdens of her authority as Mary does by the constant opposition she is forced to face. Sensitive to the fact that her predecessor was her half-sister, a Catholic queen whose reign was so violent that her sobriquet, Bloody Mary, still lives on today, Elizabeth has had to contend with how that legacy has affected patriarchal perceptions of women in power (never mind that both queens were the daughters of one of the most violent kings in the country’s history) and has thus resolved to model herself as a man. Her position is an inconsolably lonely one, more so as her decision not to rule as a woman prevents her from marrying the man she loves, and she feels bitterly jealous of her cousin even as she sees her as perhaps the only companion she has in the world. Mary is forthright and independent in all of the ways that Elizabeth cannot or will not be and as they face each other in their climatic meeting, it is all the English queen can do not to be overcome by her simultaneous, conflicting feelings of envy, fear and respect.
The film is structured quite similarly to Heat in that the two lead characters are separated from one another for nearly the entirety of the runtime. This proves to be something of a disadvantage for Josie Rourke, who made her cinematic debut with this film following a prolific career as a theatre director. While her direction is proficient enough that one could never have guessed this was her first time behind the camera, the distance separating Mary and Elizabeth from each other prevents her from being able to depict their relationship in the dramatic terms she knows best: through staging, scenery and performance. The only scene in which the two sovereigns share the screen together comes at the very end and that is the moment where Rourke is able to put her theatrical vision on stunning display. A more unconventional narrative approach that borrowed even more from the theatre might have allowed this film to break free from the constraints determined by its historical premise and realistic aesthetics, but that’s not the route they opted for. The film is able to have its leads play off one another by having them engage in a written voiceover dialogue that almost suggests some kind of psychic bond between them, but the two actresses and their relationship are far more compelling when they’re finally allowed to meet face-to-face and get to perform with and off each other.
Rourke and cinematographer John Mathieson, who is no stranger to historical drama, compose the film’s imagery in often striking ways, especially where the colour red is concerned. In this story of two women who have both been kissed by fire, red becomes a prominent symbol of defiance and revolution. We see it in the menstrual blood that drips into the bucket as Mary gives birth to the boy who will one day be the king of both England and Scotland and we also see it in the radiantly scarlet dress that Mary proudly wears as she unflinchingly approaches the executioner’s block. Mary Queen of Scots is film that sets out to make a radical statement on feminist history and hits onto something with this portrait of Mary as a woman who was denied a birthright that she was entitled to according to the laws of the very patriarchy that sought to deny her. Her strength, ferocity and individuality, all qualities that would have won her praise and admiration had she been a man, are instead met with fear, distrust and resistance. Although she is ultimately executed while her cousin Elizabeth goes on to oversee a long and prosperous reign, Mary’s victory is that she lived a life that was unapologetically hers. While the film is definitely guilty of some historical revisionism (Mary and Elizabeth never once met in real life) and could probably be accused of forcing some of its 21st century progressivism, it tells the story that it wants to tell and does so with fire.