In its tale of two monarchs, Josie Rourke’s “Mary, Queen of Scots” maintains major historical points but oversimplifies the narrative.
The film dramatizes the power struggles and intricate webs of 16th century England and Scotland, but somehow still has a rather slow pace, perhaps reflective of life without the modern-day speed of transportation and communication.
It also makes liberal use of aerial views. The vast landscapes and castles are nice, but not particularly inspiring. Although they do reinforce the idea of reigning over this land, they became a bit repetitive after three or four of these shots in quick succession. This is Rourke’s film debut, having previously directed a multitude of plays. The repetition of aerial views may be an exploration of a shot not available on stage.
Far more interesting are the direct comparisons of Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan) and Elizabeth Tudor, also known as Elizabeth I of England, (Margot Robbie). In the first few scenes, the two are both shown walking, with people bowing or moving out of the way, though one is on her way to her beheading and the other to sign the order of death. The childbirth scene does the same. Mary sits with her legs in a v-shape on a sheet with red blood spread on it, then the camera cuts to Elizabeth sitting in the same position, having quilled (a craft involving curling long strips of paper into designs) red paper into poppies, spread across in much the same way that the blood does in the previous scene. In the scene where the two finally meet — though this never actually happened in reality — the two speak with curtains and steam concealing them from each other and potential spies. Both of their shadows appear in profile on one curtain, the matching position again creating the image of sister queens. Yet, in this scene, their situations differ quite drastically — Mary has lost almost everything, while Elizabeth still holds her crown and her realm.
The film convincingly creates the notion of a beautiful, confident, Catholic Mary in something of a kinship then a rivalry with Elizabeth, the strong, single, Protestant queen marred by the pox. Even though most viewers would know Mary is going to die, the film shows Mary walking to her beheading in the first few scenes before skipping back to her return to Scotland 26 years prior. The movie made me root for her. I wanted her to triumph, knowing full well that she would not. So many troubles seem to befall her, moving from one crisis to another, never knowing who to trust. The film shows her dying as a martyr, a tragic heroine and a victim of circumstance. But, she also did make choices that led to her demise, trusting the wrong people, notably her brother, a few of her councilmen and her second husband, Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden).
The movie points to a distrust of women that significantly contributes to Mary’s difficulties — the Protestant cleric, John Knox (David Tennant) constantly vilifies her. He suggests that she is excessively lavish, and is ruled by whims — not be trusted and unfit to hold the throne. The same distrust surrounds Elizabeth, along with the continual pressure to marry and bear an heir. Although Mary seems amenable to doing so, Elizabeth is adamantly against the notion, believing — and not incorrectly if the events befalling Mary were any indication — that anyone who married her was doing so to become king and to take her throne. Throughout the movie, Elizabeth asserts that in becoming queen and focusing on the throne, the crown and her country, she has become more man than woman, further reinforcing the idea of male power in the gender roles of the time.
During their meeting, Elizabeth tells Mary that she was once jealous of her beauty and confidence, but now sees that there is no reason for envy, as those very strengths contributed to her downfall. This line is poignant and revealing, particularly with Robbie’s delivery. It conveys that Mary’s loss of the throne came about because she was seen as a threat, not only to Elizabeth’s reign, but also to the English and Scottish patriarchies.
"Mary, Queen of Scots" ends the same way that it began, with Mary’s beheading — though not the act itself, merely her head on the block — and a brief written summary of the events that followed (the beginning gave a written summary of Mary’s life up to that point). In total, it’s accurate in broad strokes, and potentially worth a watch. The acting is good, the drama and tension are there and it encourages the viewer to root for a character we know is doomed.