It may help one’s enjoyment of screenwriter Beau Willimon’s movie “Mary, Queen of Scots”( 2018 ) if you brush up on those Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth personages before you enter the theatre. Having not read the book on which the screenplay is based, John Guy’s “Mary, Queen of Scots”, I do not know how much the first thirty-five minutes conform. But, they are deadly, cold, and dark, and that includes the screen. This being said, as one sorts out the two Tudor Marys, one being “Bloody”, and our star, Mary Stuart ( Saoirse Ronan), the film picks up and splendid acting ensues.
A brief factual history helps. Mary Stuart ( 1542-1587) is tolerant and portrayed as such. She was beheaded, and Director Josie Rourke begins here. The rest is flashback.
Our Mary is not to be confused with Mary Tudor (1516-1558) “Bloody Mary” (so called by her Protestant opponents) daughter of Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon. Nor is she to be confused with Mary Tudor, sister of Henry VIII, who married Louis XII of France in 1514.
Our Mary Stuart married a French King,too. And we see, via the flashback,a young eighteen-year-old widow after the death of France’s Francis II. The scenes where Ronan plays coy with her ladies-in-waiting are meant to stress her youthful sexuality, her playfulness, and lack of hautiness. She soon is swept away by her cousin’s amorous intentions and marries a second time. Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley,( Jack Louden) is father of her son, James. In 1557, a year later, Lord Darnley is murdered by the Fourth Earl of Bothwell. As plotted by Queen Elizabeth’s make regents, he becomes Mary’s third husband. The Queen and her lords believed that they had to separate this marriage between two Catholics.
Margot Robbie is amazing in her supporting role as Queen Elizabeth I. She must protect her crown, and a Papist must not again sit on the throne. Her overt confidence, interwoven with self-effacing admittance of jealousy and the belief that Mary is the better woman, is well-scripted.
Mary is just as perceptive. Ronan just as brilliant in her portrayal. Her missives fly for the cousins\ sisters to “resolve our destinies”. She is honest, strong, and able to tell her husband that he is not her master, even at eighteen. Later, when Lord Darnley ( her second husband) sleeps with a man. Mary dismisses him from her bedchamber, but tolerantly tells him that she “can not fault him for his nature.”
The back and forth screen time between Mary and Elizabeth further separates any meshing of womanly accord. When they finally meet in person, we are taken by the weight of both Elizabeth’s and Mary’s decisions. Mary will not declaim her people though she asks for Elizabeth’s protection. Elizabeth and her regents believe that they must control Mary’s claim. When Elizabeth’s advisors propose civil war in Scotland to aid their cause, she tells Mary, “ I choose to be a man”.
Willimon’s television-drama sensation “House of Cards” ( 2013-2017) shows that he understands the political arena, and at forty-one, he does not dispute that woman have had it rough. The “Me, Too” movement shines through in his revisiting of history. In one card playing scene, a knife is put to Mary’s pregnant stomach. This is where men think her power grows. By the way, my favorite visual was the shadow of Mary’s bountiful profile.
“Mary, Queen of Scots” takes one to a period I don’t wish to return to, though I loved the four ladies praying at Mary’s bedside. Basically, any woman thinking and planning is seen as whimsical and foolish by “wise” men.
Mary endures gossip, name-calling, and subterfuge. She is called a “polecat”, betrayed by her half brother, the Earl of Moray ( James McArdle), and humiliated by at least one husband. Other male personages seem to be fuzzily identified. John Knox is played by David Tennant, and advisor, William Cecil, is played by Guy Pierce. Both are good in their parts, but a knowledge of English history would assuredly help in following the historical arc.
Queen Elizabeth controls her conscience by rolling paper into flowers and embroidery. She muses that “ when we are dead nothing matters”. Her sigh of “How cruel men are!” thrusts the sub-theme forward. This film seems to champion Mary Queen of Scots’ reputation. Guillotined, Mary is poryrayed as loyal, dutiful, and tolerant, rather than ambitious. She believes that to relinquish the throne is against God’s will.
We wish Queen Elizabeth did not yield so to her male regents’ bridle. When she burns her artful paperwork, she symbolically succumbs to a man’s world. The red flowers melt into blood between her legs. Another nicely graphic touch, yet makes one think that only women who give birth are true women. Robbie beautifully and understatedly emotes that “we could do worse than put her (Mary) on the throne of England.”
The second half of the film is far superior to the first. I loved the thatched wash house scene, where the pock-marked Queen plays peek-a-boo with the lovely Mary. Both women seem utterly alone. Robbie, again delivers remarkable lines: “ Your gifts are your downfall…I was jealous of your beauty, your bravery, your motherhood”.
Elizabeth was forty years on the throne. She thought women ruled better without discord, but her signing the death knell for a despairing, but resolute, Mary did not finish the deal. Mary’s son, James, became James VI of Scotland and James I of England after Elizabeth’s death. Oscars for the female leads is here reason enough to see “ Mary, Queen of Scots”( 2018), and revisiting the possibilities of historical-could-have-beens is fun, too.