The British seem to have an inexhaustible supply of bloody royals and old castles to exploit, and Americans at least have an appetite to match. In just the last couple of months, The Favourite brought us a grim and intimate view of the 18th century Queen Anne, and now comes a grim and intimate view from the 16th century, of Mary (Saoirse Ronan) in Scotland and Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie) in England.
The director of Mary, Queen of Scots, Josie Rourke, is artistic director of a small and potent theater company in London called the Donmar Warehouse – and it shows. The film’s a marvel of costumes, murky lighting and dramatic outdoor locations in Scotland. As story, there’s plenty of intrigue and violence.
So, there are two queens at the same time on the same island, and that is not a good thing. Besides jealousies and religious conflicts, there’s also the fundamental self-serving viciousness of monarchs and their devotees. Plus, as this film sees it, both Scotland and England are packed with male nobles who cannot not bear to be governed by a woman.
Mary, Queen of Scots is certainly a movie for our time. Right off the bat, it questions the legitimacy of rulers. Mary was born in Scotland but raised in France. She climbs out of a small boat to set foot on Scottish soil and inform her half brother James that she’s not just there for a visit. And for all his welcoming, he’s still not ready to return the hug or warm up the look in his eyes.
Then there’s religious ferment. If you ever wonder why the American Constitution forbids the establishment of an official religion, remember that the former English men who wrote the constitution witnessed the fallout of the horrifying conflicts between Catholics and Protestants. Mary was Catholic; Elizabeth Protestant, and while both wished their citizens could practice their religions as they pleased, they were surrounded by men who carried no such generous views and could be enthusiastic murderers.
The film sets the two women up as a pair, sometimes rivals, sometimes sympathetic. In letters, they call each other sister – even when they don’t mean it. Both are redheads; both have a gaggle of men nagging them to marry and produce heirs – as if they’re just broodmares. Each woman has a claim to the English throne, and should the younger Mary bear a son before Elizabeth that boy will become king of the two countries.
In fact that happened. Mary’s son became James VI of Scotland and then James I of England. But it wasn’t fun in the nursery. Lots of people were killed. Her half brother and his gang forced Mary to abdicate, so she spent many years in prison in England, until in 1587, Elizabeth finally had her beheaded.
It mostly takes a woman filmmaker to create this vision of two women monarchs who must thread their way through the complicated affairs of state in a dangerous plot-filled world, and through the additional maze forced upon them by a bunch of bullying men. The situation these monarchs face as women is crucial to the history of the 16th century and to our present.
But the downside is that Mary, Queen of Scots goes through its social issues like a punch list. The men deny legitimacy to the women; a gay man is murdered. The cast includes a few – although not many -- black actors, which may not be historically accurate, but it’s refreshing to see this hint of colorblind casting. And you don’t want to try to pass a history exam with this film, anyway.
But it all feels a bit by rote, which diminishes the importance of these elements; it’s too rigid to feel genuine. Still, if you don’t think that women directors can change the ballgame, think again.