Mary Queen of Scots wants to be a big feminist picture. A brutal excoriation of the wrongs done to women, powerful before their time, brought down by men who cannot counteance their position. In truth I have little idea how historical a work it is, writer Beau Willimon (of House of Cards, among others) adapted the work from an acclaimed biography — but one senses that his tastes are a little too contemporary for the material.
Take for example the scene when Mary’s queer best friend is crossdressing in her chambers and admits, to her and the ladies in waiting, that they, ‘consider myself more a sister than a brother sometimes.’ Consider the unanimous support that they get, the shock and outrage of the male council when they barge in to witness the scene. She’s cool, the film says of the 16th century Catholic monarch. She gets it. Much as I would like to believe so, I somewhat doubt the real figure did.
Consider how this plotline progresses. Mary catches the friend having slept with her Husband and, as they grovel on their knees outside in the rain, she forgives him. Says his actions are wholly understandable and that from now on they just have to be more careful. His third major scene is his murder at the hands of her council, she weeps over his corpse. This is not a film that cared about his character, it is far more invested in what he represents. And — more importantly — how what he represents can reflect positively upon her.
Same with the way it gestures at sisterhood. Both of the co-leads: Saoirse Ronan as the titular Mary, and Margot Robbie as her cousin Queen Elizabeth of England, have great relationships with their handmaidens. But the film find the need to cast the same sense of unity upon their diplomatic relationship, one which finds itself mostly consumed by their sending envoys to make incompatible demands of each other. ‘Oh,’ how they sigh as director Josie Rourke constantly intercuts between them in their residences, ‘all of this could be solved so easily if the women were just permitted to speak face to face.’
These were two women fighting over the throne of England, figureheads of a cultural divide that still can be felt in this country. Yet this film relegates the voice of Scottish Protestants to David Tennant who does his very best impression of a reddit MRA, ranting in churches across the land about the dangers of having a woman as head of state. Voices of Catholics, aside from the lead, go entirely almost entirely unheard. When, having raised an army to fend off rebellious forces funded by England, Mary rides alongside. She speaks to those willing to die for her. A woman of the people.
Yet what of the people? It feels reductive for this tale, one which ends with the unification of two Kingdoms, to keep its focus so insular. Of course, it does its best to remedy this aesthetically. Mary is always portrayed on the move, she is a woman of action. She strides, rides, dances, in direct comparison to Elizabeth, and the listless stagnation of her court, but the momentum is meaningless. We see clearly the Scotland that she fights for, and that is not the people. She fights for the land and fights for herself.
Elizabeth barely fights at all. In order to conjure the appearance of a benign relationship between the two she is completely dissociated from having any role in her cousin’s downfall, constantly yielding to the whims of her advisers. Her contraction and recovery of smallpox seems to come as a relief. Not intending herself for children, its effects on her body pretty much guarantee her the autonomy she desires.
The film doesn’t seem to be quite approving of that approach to femininity though. There’s gotta be a scene in there where she visits her stables and makes eye contact with a young foal and looks wistfully off into the distance while she bunches up her dress so her shadow looks pregnant. Early on she states that the crown has distanced her from women, she now feels a closer affinity with the masculine aspect. Later, when she starts adopting that pale makeup look to conceal her scarring the film presents her as a grotesque.
Is it because it feels like she has been in some way untrue to her nature? That she has not confronted the hardships of her life with a high enough chin? Ronan’s Mary is unflappable, unerringly betrayed by all the men in her orbit, yet possessed of a steely glare and sharp tongue. Even as she prepares for her death in the opening scene she is immaculately composed. We value that in our heroines, people love seeing the pain not register.
And to just think, without the men, none of this would have happened. It’s a disingenuous history and easily readable as one through the text. Scowly faced bearded men sitting spouting the same rhetoric we hear the right come out with daily. Sexism is still a fact of all our lives, but its expressions often change. How does it serve the telling of Queen Mary to write her into the twenty first century? Sure, she stands head and shoulders above all the men, but it’s not a level playing field.
When her husband cheats, and is summarily carted off to private accommodation where he is seen entertaining men; Mary is urged against her religion to divorce him. The film has no way to deal with the situation, it cannot rationalise the image of the woman it wants to convey alongside the historical reality. We are robbed of the opportunity to explore the true emotions of this situation. The joy of looking into the past comes in seeing that at the core we are all, and have always been human. Despite the differences in our situation.
Why waste that opportunity?