I am normally not a fan of period pieces set in the Elizabethan era. I came up in the 90’s back when Hollywood was flushed with them. Despite this genre prejudice I found myself utterly absorbed by Josie Rourke’s Mary Queen of Scots. A smart, complex, enthralling tragedy so well paced and woven the Bard himself would be pleased.
Of the many feats Mary Queen of Scots somehow pulls off, is the slaying of the insistent but moronic myth that movies like these cannot be populated by queer people or people of color. They have always existed and are a part of history; regardless of what decades of whitewashed historical epics might have said. The inclusiveness of Rourke’s film is as refreshing as it is bold.
While Mary Queen of Scots may present itself as a costume drama about how Mary (Saoirse Ronan) tried and failed to unify Scotland and England, it is only partly about that. At its heart, it is a tragedy about two women Mary and Elizabeth (Margot Robbie) and how they are the head of their church and country but each sits at the heart of the patriarchy.
I’m not sure how historically accurate the script by Beau Willimon is but, in the end, it doesn’t matter. It feels real and when it comes to storytelling, that is the best we can hope for. Exiled to Scotland, the Catholic Mary Stuart attempts to bridge a peace with the Protestant Elizabeth I. Elizabeth refuses to marry or have children thus cementing her hold on the crown. Mary, on the other hand, is quite happy to marry and is, in fact, planning on having a child thus giving her a claim to the throne.
Don’t worry, Mary Queen of Scots is much more fascinating and moving than it sounds. For starters, Robbie’s Elizabeth is a woman on her own surrounded by men all but demanding she marry and sire an heir. Robbie is, per usual, magnetic.
Elizabeth confesses to her advisor William Cecil (Guy Pearce), “I am a man. If I were to marry, my husband would surely wish to be my king. I will not bow to any king. I am the queen. You are the closest thing to a wife I shall ever have.” The moment is a perfect marriage of the perfect words for the perfect actress.
Mary Queen of Scots is shockingly adept at showing how remarkably little power women in power have when their counsels and envoys are men. Schemes and double crosses are made both for power but also so to free the country from “the yoke of female rule”. Time and time again Mary Stuart and Elizabeth I remain always pitted against each other.
Mary wishes nothing but to be named merely the next in line for the crown. But Elizabeth’s men cannot tolerate a Catholic laying claim and Mary’s men cannot fathom bowing to a Protestant. Round and round it goes with treachery and betrayal littering the road. Willimon’s script has an aura of fate inscribed into its structure. Even as Mary is charmed by Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden) we know he will be her downfall. Not because she is weak but because it will allow, by technicality, for there to be a way to kick her off the throne.
Ronan’s Mary loves her country even though it seems not to return her love. Ronan does not have the fierceness that Robbie has and in fact, her Mary seems innocent and naive comparatively. But Ronan is sly in her performance. Much like Elizabeth, we underestimate her but we soon grow to root for her.
Lord Darnley’s inevitable betrayal is uncovered and Mary is counseled to execute him. “I will not behave as some woman Henry the VIII beheading my husbands just to secure my throne. I took a vow to honor and love him.” Though he may not live with her, or rule with her, she will not break a vow taken before God.
Mary and Elizabeth both show courage and principle in a world filled with men who have neither. At one point Elizabeth, suffering from the pox, ailing, but still full of fire and grace, wonders, why she shouldn’t just name Mary as successor. Her advisors point out her failings to which Elizabeth laughs. In one of the best scenes Elizabeth lays out all that has been done to Mary and yet she still stands.
Mary for her part is dealing with a recently quashed civil war, a renegade Cleric John Knox (David Tennant) and a gay husband who is being blackmailed by her most trusted advisors to take the crown and give it to her brother James (James McArdle). Unlike Elizabeth, she refuses to give up her femininity or her right to love and passion. Rourke never says which queen is right or wrong, only that each queen is ruling in the way she feels is best.
Willimon’s script lays out each character so fully that we understand where each character is coming from even after only just meeting them. We understand Tennant’s Knox when he argues with Mary about accepting the Catholics. Willimon’s deep and abiding empathy flows through the very text of Mary Queen of Scots and adds to the verisimilitude of the story.
Gemma Chan, who was so wonderful in this year’s earlier Crazy Rich Asians is magnificent as Elizabeth Hardwick. A role with barely any words, she plays a friend and confidante of Elizabeth’s. Chan’s glances tell us more than dialogue can as she becomes increasingly worried about her queen.
Rourke and Willimon surround both Queens with an inner circle of ladies, each an extension of how the queen is perceived. Elizabeth’s are comforting but often quiet and reserved. Mary’s are much more outgoing and effusive in their praise. Mary show’s an inclusive streak herself when she allows a bard who seems to enjoy wearing dresses into her fold. She treats him as she treats her other ladies, and they accept him as so.
Scotland is a countryside we’ve often seen in movies. John Mathieson, who shot Logan, shoots Mary Queen of Scots with a lush and deft eye for rolling hills and misty beaches. For all the beauty he and Rourke never let us forget the grimy reality of the times. Yes, there are castles, but they are made of stone, the chairs do not look comfortable and when it rains, there is little hope of getting dry.
Mary Queen of Scots is breathtaking in its intimacy and drawn out tension. It is Rourke’s directorial debut in film and it is an announcement of confidence and joy of a craft. She has created a world that feels lived in and whose drama and characters feel immediate and real.
Full of political intrigue, but never dull or pompous, this is a generous movie filled with many tiny moments and gestures on the sides of the frame. It takes a great talent to portray a tragic tale of love, sisterhood, betrayal, and envy in such a way we feel exuberant rather than exhausted. Rourke is such a talent.