The Whims of Men Complicate a Rivalry Amongst Queens in MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS

In recent years, there has been a growing cultural awareness of the extent to which the film industry is by and large dominated by men both in front of and behind the camera. To put a spotlight on women working in film, I am participating in the 52 Films By Women challenge. The requirements: watch at least one (1) new-to-you film per week that has been directed by a woman. As I make my way through the year, I will be reviewing each film I see as part of the challenge here.

52 Films By Women Entry #: 4

Mary Queen of Scots poster.jpg

It must be frustrating to have to make historical costume dramas about European royalty today. In an era of pop culture dominated by the likes of Game of Thrones, any film tackling the political machinations of medieval monarchy is going to invite comparisons to that fantasy-epic behemoth, whether intended or not. Mary Queen of Scots doesn’t bother shying away from similarities, hoping the audiences that made that show a juggernaut will see the muted blue-gray color palette and crisp, just-modern-enough costumes and give it their attention. Even the rugged stone castle and shrouded countryside the titular monarch calls home recalls Winterfell more than it does Braveheart.

Granted, Mel Gibson’s epic was always more interested in heroics, glory, and violence anyway. Here, debut director Josie Rourke focuses on palace intrigue and the tensions of who gets to hold political power. The year is 1561, and young Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan) has returned home to Scotland after the death of her husband, the king of France. With a rightful claim to the throne of nearby England, her presence threatens the dominance of her cousin Queen Elizabeth (Margot Robbie), who is unmarried and has no heir. Mary’s Catholic faith poses yet another point of contention to a predominantly Protestant England, no stranger to violence brought about by religious tension.

The table set for scheming and subversion, the opposing royal courts move through various plots of upheaval. England tries to negotiate a husband for Mary to more closely control her; Mary refuses without a proclamation of her place as heir. Other suitors present themselves. Trusted allies rebel before being squashed and banished. A child is conceived. The screenplay by Beau Willimon covers a lot of ground, sometimes at the expense of its clarity with regard to the film’s extended cast of supporting players. Conflict assumes an episodic flow, often with characters and plot threads resurfacing from the ether of the audience’s recollection as if from three forgotten seasons of television ago.

The two things that remain clear throughout are the monarchs at its center. From the beginning, Mary and Elizabeth exchange letters, publicly implying rivalry but privately extending friendship and understanding. Ronan portrays a Mary who is headstrong and ambitious, always clear and direct with her intent for the throne, caring little for whose sensitivities she tramples to get it. Robbie’s Elizabeth is more emotionally and physically fragile, given over to smallpox early in the film, but no less wise about her position and influence. Each command the screen during their respective scenes, beating back the bickering of their male-dominated courts of advisers and career politicians.

Josie Rourke

Saoirse Ronan
Margot Robbie
Jack Lowden
Joe Alwyn
David Tennant
Guy Pearce
Gemma Chan

Screenplay by
Beau Willimon

As one could expect from studying any amount history, the two face many of their greatest challenges due to the fact of their womanhood. Mary’s court is comprised mainly of men looking to marry her off as quickly as possible, partially to produce an heir to secure her throne but more to ease their discomfort with a female leader. An early clash with the Protestant cleric John Knox (David Tennant) forces Mary to banish him from his court; the film often cuts back to him spouting rhetoric deserving of its own Fox News segment to the Scottish people, borne as much of misogyny as it is differences in spirituality. Knox is instrumental in the ultimate rejection of Mary by the Scots, partnering more than once with her half-brother to lead a rebellion against her sovereignty. Meanwhile Elizabeth is continually urged to find her own husband for similar reasons, but refuses in order to more fully maintain her own power. Robbie becomes covered in more and more layers of prosthetics and make-up over the course of the film, at first from disease but ultimately to transform her into the semblance of some garish ghoul, as far removed from perceptions of femininity as possible. The transformation is presented as willful, with more than a little sad subtext of necessity.

The film’s conflict, much of which originating from the women’s advisers subverting their will, culminates in a single meeting between the two queens. Their confrontation was manufactured for the film, as any number of vocal historians have noted, but it dramatically renders the film’s thesis into text. Face-to-face, the two women see a relationship that could have been; they’d always have been rivals, but their similar positions should’ve lent themselves to a spirit of sympathy and collaboration, rather than constant struggle. There is much that is overtly modern about the film, from its visual aesthetic to its feminist reading of historical tragedy. Sometimes this is a detriment. However, the two leads make Mary Queen of Scots’ illustration of female leadership’s myriad burdens compelling and sharp, if not always consistently focused.

Mary Queen of Scots is available on DVD & Blu-ray, and can be rented on most digital video platforms