Film Review: Mary, Queen of Scots (2018) DIR. Josie Rourke
This has certainly been a season of queens. Beginning with Bohemian Rhapsody, the biopic of Freddy Mercury, lead singer of the group, Queen. Then there came Yorgos Lanthimos, The Favorite, about Queen Anne of England. Now we have got Mary Queen of Scots, a “two-for” about two queens, Mary, Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I of England. If you are expecting to brush up on your historical facts and insights served up with gorgeous costumes, production values, superb cinematography, and first rate acting, this film delivers on all but the first. But that is not really the point, any more than it was with The Favorite. (I had to spend time on Wikipedia to find relevant details to flesh out the storyline). This is not about the epic sweep of history, but about the intimate details of the lives of those at the center of and whose actions affect the epic sweep of history. How their all too human foibles and impulsive actions can have epic consequences. The relevant forces seem to be sex, gender, and religion.
We know how this story ends. And for anyone who does not, it is made clear by the opening scene of Mary’s execution by beheading. We are then brought back to her return to Scotland after 13 years being raised in France and married to the Dauphin, who has just died after 2 years of marriage, making Mary a widow at age 18. That she has lived most of her life abroad, become a Catholic and very French, and is returning to a largely Protestant country in the throes of religious turmoil does not auger well. The fact that she was named the legal heir to the Stuart throne at 6 days old upon the death of her father James I, does not endear her to those who have been running the country and fighting the battles, including her older half brother, who has been in charge, and is also a Protestant. Mary, as portrayed by Saoirse Ronan is young and inexperienced, yet emboldened and entitled by her legitimacy. She finds that she will have to fight for her rightful place in Scotland and at the court. But she has got the courage to do whatever it takes, often at her own peril.
When she reaches out to her cousin Queen Elisabeth I of England (Margot Robbie), in an effort to form an alliance against the noblemen and the politicians who resent the powers of female rulers, she lets it be known that she feels that she outranks her and, in fact, could be entitled to her throne, as well. Very impolitic. This does engender wholehearted support from Elisabeth who regards her with suspicion as a potential threat, as does her court who fan the flames. The plotting begins when Elisabeth tries to entice Mary into marriage with her favorite (and possible lover) Lord Robert Dudley (Joe Alwyn), as a way to have control over her or at least as a spy in the court. Mary does not take the bait and instead takes the ambitious Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden) as her husband, to the consternation of nearly everyone. In spite of the folly of her choice, the goal is achieved and Mary bears a child who will have a legitimate right to both the Tudor and the Stuart thrones.
What the film gives us in spades is the contrast between the two queens and their courts. The uber-formal Tudor court ruled by a woman who took her job seriously and cared deeply about her image as a monarch to the detriment of personal fulfillment and happiness. She led an almost monastic existence and describes her dedication to her job as turning her more into a man than a woman. In her elaborate and formal dress, makeup and wigs she becomes more iconic than human eschewing intimacy even with her ladies-in-waiting. She rules for 45 years and dies a virgin. In contrast, Mary, a woman of sexual appetites and passionate emotions with her associates and her causes is intimate and affectionate with her ladies-in-waiting, which includes a gay musician and court favorite, David Rizzio. Her style of dress and hairstyle range from loosely braided red tresses to a strangely formal upswept style with a tall flange-like front section and she dresses in relatively unconstricted style. Her management style is ballsy and combative. Mary has three husbands and lives 45 years, the last 19 of which were imprisoned by Elisabeth, who condemned her to death. But Mary has the final win. Her son ascends to power as James I of England and James VI of Scotland in 1603, thereby unifying the countries. Mary’s dream fulfilled. Neither queen had an enviable life.
Watch the trailer here