With it’s exquisite costumes, majestic castles, and political power plays in an attempt to secure an all important throne, Mary Queen of Scots has elements that are exactly what you would expect from a drama set in the Elizabethan Era. What’s unexpected however is the way in which director Josie Rourke flips the often told tale of a bitter rivalry between warring female monarchs on its head to create a story that’s ripe for the #metoo generation, while still staying true (for the most part) to historical fact. In this latest telling of the story, both Mary (Saoirse Ronan) and Queen Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie) are shown as mirror images of each other: fierce, headstrong women who may have actually been allies had the men around them not sought to diminish their power and control their every move and thought.
The story begins with a brief glimpse at the point where Mary’s life ends: sentenced to death for treason in 1587 after being in “protective custody” for decades. From there we flashback to 1561, where we meet Mary upon her return to Scotland from France having recently been widowed following the death of her husband, King Francis II. Rather than bow to pressure to marry again so soon, the staunchly Catholic Mary prepares to exercise her claim to the English throne, laying down a challenge the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I. Elizabeth is unmarried, childless and without an heir to succeed her upon her death, so naturally is suspicious of her cousin’s intentions, and is especially interested in who the supposed usurper intends to marry.
The story is a fascinating look at two women who approach what is expected of them – marriage and children – in drastically different ways. For Mary, a husband is simply something she must have if she means to ensure her position and produce an heir to the throne. Her marriage to Henry “Lord Darnley” Stuart (Jack Lowden) is one born out of necessity rather than love. Elizabeth on the other hand is portrayed as madly in love with the courtier Robert Dudley (Joe Alywn), though refuses to marry out of fear that her husband will attempt to claim her throne for himself, and that she will become obsolete upon the birth of an heir.
Similar to the choices they make, each woman is portrayed in a different light. Mary is seen as warm, adventurous, kind-hearted and open-minded, while Elizabeth is seen as cold, vain and jealous. Yet, neither woman is portrayed as the villain of the piece. In fact, it’s made resoundingly clear that the women could have been firm friends and strong allies had the men around them not been so affronted by the thought of two female rulers, leading them to plot their downfall.
Despite their positions and power, these two women are subjected to a cruel, sexist, patriarchal outlook that seeks to renounce the idea of a female monarch by branding one a promiscuous adulterer while painting the other as barren and useless. It’s a sharp nod to the prejudice experienced by women throughout time in an attempt to hold them to a unfair moral standard, and have them seen as fit only for childbearing and nothing more. Sadly, hundreds of years later some still hold this view, but if movements like #metoo prove anything, women are no longer prepared to sit by and take it!
As you would expect at this stage, Ronan is perfect as the titular Mary, apart from a couple of instances in which the Scottish brogue she adopted for the role drops out in favour of her native Irish accent. Having said that, given the similarity of the Irish and Scottish accents, perhaps you might not pick up on this if you aren’t from either of these places, so she may just get away with it! Robbie too is a revelation as the stern Queen Elizabeth I. The Australian actress has proved she is more than just a pretty face, jumping from diverse roles such as the psychotic Harley Quinn in the DC Cinematic Universe, to the eccentric Tonya Harding (which earned her an Oscar nomination) and now one of Britain’s most famously stoic monarchs.
Sure, the film has some historical inaccuracies, including the inclusion of black and asian actors to portray members of the 16th century English court. Most notable of these is Gemma Chan starring as Elizabeth Hardwick, a servant to the Queen and the eventual keeper of Mary during her custody, and Adrian Lester as Queen Elizabeth’s diplomatic representative Lord Randolph. Of course, while both these actors are playing characters who were white in real life, it would perhaps be unwise to make the assumption that their were absolutely no people of colour at all in historical Britain. Ultimately, more diversity is still needed in film, and casting these actors in minor supporting roles doesn’t take from the overall portrayal of the facts, so why should it be an issue?
Perhaps even more notable is the much talked about scene in which the two Queens come face to face, when it has often been well documented that the two never actually met. While this does indeed fly in the face of what we believe to be historical fact, you could argue that their is absolutely no way to know for certain that the two never met in secret, as is portrayed here. As an inaccuracy, I think it’s also one that we can let slide!
All in all, Mary Queen of Scots has all the things we love about a good period piece, really strong acting in it’s two leads, a slew of amazing costumes from the incredible Alexandra Byrne and some modern infusions that keep it fresh and interesting.
Have you seen it yet?? Let me know your thoughts below!