'Mary Queen of Scots': Two Queens Fight for the Crown, and the Men Win

Saoirse Ronan manages to make Mary human in 'Mary Queen of Scots'

From left, Ian Hart as Lord Maitland, Jack Lowden as Lord Darnley, Saoirse Ronan as Mary Stuart and James McArdle as Earl of Moray in a scene from "Mary Queen of Scots."
Liam Daniel,AP

One night in February 1587, hundreds of people gathered in a castle in Northamptonshire to watch the beheading of Mary Stuart. She wore a red dress, symbolizing, at least in her eyes, the Christian saints who were executed before her. The former queen did not resist, offering her head voluntarily to the executioner. The first stroke of the axe didn’t kill her – several blows were needed to finish the job. Only then was her little dog, which she had hidden in the folds of her dress, revealed, covered in blood. It was a dramatic end to a tempestuous life, but the new film “Mary Queen of Scots” delivers a contemporary interpretation. No longer a morality tale about a ruler who lost a religious war, the picture is more a chronicle of a tragedy foretold about a woman in a man’s world.

The relations between Mary and her cousin Elizabeth I, queen of England, has fired people’s imagination for centuries. The idea of two queens and one island has spawned legends, books and movies, among them “Elizabeth: The Golden Age” (2007), with Cate Blanchett as Elizabeth and Samantha Morton as Mary. The story has been told often, but the history yields constant interpretation.

The new film offers an alternative narrative for the hated Scottish queen, based on a book by the historian John Guy. It’s the first film by Josie Rourke, an acclaimed theater director. The screen adaptation was assigned to Beau Willimon, who has experience in court intrigues of a different kind as the developer of the American version of the series “House of Cards.” However, with Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie in the lead roles, the production is generating heightened interest in the current awards season – principally in the realms of performances, set design and costumes.

Theater trap

As the film’s title suggests, in contrast to the movie poster – on which both women appear – the plot’s center of gravity tilts toward Mary, at Elizabeth’s expense. The picture opens with the execution, but then immediately jumps back in time to the day in 1561 on which Mary returned to Scotland. Mary had been crowned queen when she was still an infant, but was raised in France. She married the king of France, became a widow when he died and then returned to Edinburgh to claim the Scottish throne – all before she turned 20. The crown is easily attained, but her attempt to wield power encounters stubborn resistance from advisers and courtiers. Mary was a Catholic queen in a largely Protestant court, at a time when Scotland, England and the whole of Europe were being torn apart by intra-Christian religious wars.

The success of the new Protestant stream, which had its genesis just a few decades earlier, brought paranoia into every royal court in Europe. In a world in which faith was everything, how was it possible to know what your own counselor believed in? That paranoia is shown occasionally in the film, but is mostly shunted aside in favor of a simplistic, unsophisticated gender-centered narrative. The result is to turn the story of two complex women into a shallow pageant of physical, mental and political abuse fomented by scheming men.

The director and screenwriter’s point of departure is that Mary and Elizabeth, as cousins and queens on the same island, should have a close bond of sisterhood. Since the two do not meet for almost the entire length of the film – in reality, they never met – their relationship takes the form of exchanges of letters and visits by envoys. The similarity between them is given expression through crosscutting that shows symbolic moments in each of their lives. Thus, the substantive background to the tension between the two almost disappears: the Catholic masses in England called for Mary to be crowned as their queen, and Protestants in Scotland demanded that Elizabeth be made their queen. That’s not a standard game of thrones – it’s a genuine religious war.

Other than the spectacular landscape shots that punctuate the film, and an attempt to set as many scenes as possible outdoors, Rourke largely falls into the theater trap. The script, which wavers between a violent political drama and a violent sexual soap opera, rewrites or completely erases the stories that defamed “Mary the whore,” who buried all her husbands and was suspected of murdering one of them, and of plotting to wrest Elizabeth’s crown from her.

On the other hand, Mary did not become a saint. She was the victim of a patriarchal system, but at the same time she was hot-tempered and impulsive, and at every crossroads navigated toward achievement. Despite a highly detailed script, served up clumsily and frequently confused, Ronan still manages to make Mary human, striking a successful balance between fragility and unrestrained ambition.

In Robbie’s hands, Elizabeth is given a more interesting interpretation. The Australian actress doesn’t have a perfect English accent, but her rendering of Elizabeth is fascinating. In contrast to Blanchett and her predecessors, the new version of Elizabeth is relegated to a supporting role and presents only a particular aspect of her character – the one that viewed her young and beautiful cousin with mixed feelings.

Robbie’s Elizabeth, who is at the start of her reign, is compelled to cope with political and religious forces no less acute than those Mary faced. Every bit of solidarity, and even admiration, that Elizabeth feels for Mary is accompanied by jealousy and a fixation with the implications for her still-unstable rule of a Catholic neighbor who is also a claimant to the English throne.

But issues of religion and politics have been sacrificed to a superficial statement about the true difficulties faced by the two leaders. Elizabeth and Mary seemingly exercise absolute power, but have no one to trust. All the men around them have a hard time accepting their status and try to subvert the two queens at every opportunity. The filmmakers, perceiving that contemporary audiences will be more than ready to identify with these two figures, play up the elements in their biographies that speak to the present-day public dialogue.

Sex as a survival strategy and rape as a male strategy are more than part of the story: they are its very heart. The director uses the issues of fertility and childbirth to remind us that the source of the women’s strength is also a source of weakness. Elizabeth chooses to forgo marriage and children to avoid losing an iota of her power to a man, while Mary opts for a different tactic, one befitting an underdog. She is forced to marry a man she doesn’t want in order to beget a child and thereby add greater legitimacy to her claim to the English throne. In her case, too, marriage and bearing children pose a concrete risk of the loss of power, but Mary is obliged to take this route in order to survive.

Bearded chauvinism

The character of Mary is a salient 21st century product that is insinuated into the story. She is presented unconvincingly as a leader who espouses freedom of religion and a pluralistic court when it comes to origins and sexual inclination. The ordeals she undergoes as a consequence are more in accord with our era than with hers. Willimon’s script leaves very little time for topics that depart from femininity. For example, the character of the cleric John Knox, played by David Tennant (“Doctor Who”), boils down to. That is in fact an accurate – but very partial – depiction of the misogynist preacher. In addition to his hatred for women, he is known primarily as the father of Scottish Protestantism. In this period, when the state was waging an internal war over its religious character, he was the leader of the Protestant church in the face of a Catholic queen who sought to subject Scottish Protestants to the pope and thereby, as they saw it, endanger their souls in the next world.

Even though the plot updates the narrative of the two queens in an attempt to evoke contemporary issues, this is often done clumsily and unpersuasively. And despite its thrust, “Mary Queen of Scots” remains, for better and for worse, within the familiar confines of a routine period drama. Even though the filmmakers have adopted a present-day perspective to relate a kind of feminist cautionary tale, the court intrigues and the politics of the situation are too familiar and only recycle old biographies. The film does gather momentum toward the end, as it increasingly departs from history, and reaches a compelling and moving climax thanks to the two stars. But at that stage, it’s no longer enough.