Mary Queen of Scots desperately wants to be in this bracket. With its blind casting, feminist themes and championing of sexual freedom, it is an attempt to look at Tudor history with a fresh and modern gaze. Unfortunately, due to Beau Willimon’s clunky script and radically simplified version of two complicated women, the film ends up being a preachy story that sags under the weight of its importance and contains more sex than actual historical politics.
The film charts the history of the conflict between Scotland and England in 1569. It tells the story of Mary Stuart’s ascension to the Scottish throne and her rivalry with her cousin Elizabeth I, Queen of England. Both Mary (Saoirse Ronan) and Elizabeth (Margot Robbie) have a claim to the throne of England, but in this film it is personal rivalries between the two women, rather than political ones, that take centre stage.
Both Ronan and Robbie give impassioned performances, far better than the script deserves, with Robbie giving perhaps the more nuanced performance out of the two. Despite Ronan’s best efforts, her Mary remains an opaque figure. The film is filled with so much reverence for the Scottish Queen that we don’t get a real sense of who she is as a person, her likes, her dislikes, her virtues or her flaws. She appears more as a figurehead for defiant femininity. A symbol to represent strong womanhood. This unsubtle approach to writing a character might appeal to younger audiences, especially teenage girls, but for an audience of older women, Mary may appear cliched and rather unrealistic.
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There is no historical record of interpersonal bitterness between the two queens (or indeed an actual meeting between the two). Yet Elizabeth’s resistance to marrying is documented and there are a few nice scenes in which Robbie gets to act opposite Guy Pearce as William Cecil, Elizabeth’s chief adviser. They discuss how any man married to Elizabeth could potentially steal her crown. This is not a film which paints men in a favourable light. All the male characters are power-grabbing, cruel and weak. The strongest relationships are between women such as Mary and her serving women. Even the two rival queens repeatedly call each other ‘sisters’ and share an intensely emotional connection. In the end, it is the advice and influence of men that pit the two monarchs against each other, rather than a powerful and political rivalry.
Mary Queen of Scots is a feminist revision of history. Several highly fictionalised scenes try to convey a female-centric view of the 16th century. Many of such scenes literally jump out from the screen shouting about how modern the film’s approach is to history. Look! We’re showing Mary’s period! Look she enjoys oral sex! Look at how Elizabeth’s entire court is nothing but ruffled men! Look at how Mary accepts homosexuality as if she was living in 2018! Look at these strong women in a man’s world! It’s an admirable endeavour but all so unsubtle and more than a little artificial. Taking liberty with history has been done before; think of this year’s The Favourite, also a film about a British Queen. But if you are going to embark on fictionalising history, one should at least try to do something interesting and creatively original with the source material. Unfortunately this does neither and throws every every period trope available at the audience.
It is not just the script that is flawed, but also the pacing of the film. Whereas some actual historical events race by, other scenes drag at a snail’s pace. Moreover, the film’s length is overly long, so that by the time Mary and Elizabeth finally meet in a fictionalised scene filled with overwrought emotion, their encounter actually feels like an anti-climax. There is a slightly preachy tone to the script and the director, Josie Rourke, imbues the film with a sense of undeserved grandeur. This is a story of a great people, great women and great gestures. The whole production seems to suffer under the weight of its own importance.
The film is a pleasure to watch visually, however. The cinematography is beautiful with stark Scottish landscapes, richly decorated interiors and excellent use of light and outdoor space. The costumes are also breathtaking with Mary and Elizabeth both wearing detailed gowns and sporting a range of complicated hairstyles. The soundtrack to the film, composed by Max Richter, is also very good and blends well with the wide camera shots of Scotland.
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Josie Rourke, who has primarily directed theatre, does succeed in directing a film that is very pleasing on the eye. Some scenes are highly stylised and striking, such as Elizabeth inspecting her horses, framed in golden sunlight, or Mary dressed in bright blue joyfully riding her horse up a hill. But other scenes are highly dramatic and implausible, stretching even the audience’s patience, such as when the two queens meet or Elizabeth scarred by smallpox runs into a room full of fencing courtiers. These scenes would be entertaining enough until you realise you are watching a story about two real life historical, complicated and intelligent queens. It is hard not to roll your eyes when Elizabeth plaintively cries: “I am not my father!” Too often the dialogue is clunky and predictable and frequently the film descends in to melodrama.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment is the surprising lack of politics from Mary and Elizabeth. They appear to rule simply by walking around their castles dressed in fine clothes and dwelling on their romantic relationships with men. It is not hard to imagine how different it could have been with more politics and less sex. Beau Willimon’s script reduces these two famous women to simplified versions of a Tudor Queen. Mary especially resembles a cliche that could have been created to serve a feminist movement or tie in with a fad for female superheroes. We must be careful that in this brave new world of female-led films, we don’t reduce our female characters to simplified symbols, but instead do them the justice they deserve and write them as fully realised women, admirable but also complicated.