The new Mary Queen of Scots film hits UK cinemas today (although it's been out elsewhere for a month already) so here's my review, with an eye on the historical details that it gets right (and wrong!).
There seems no better time for cinematic visions of history which put women to the fore, and one period which lends itself to being viewed through a prism of womanhood is Britain in the sixteenth century, when both Scotland and England were ruled by queens. Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots were cousins, nearly a decade apart in age, whose lives and personal circumstances could hardly have been more different.
Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan) had spent her childhood in France, become queen of France (by marriage) aged just 16, and returned to Scotland after being widowed at 18. Elizabeth Tudor (Margot Robbie) was the daughter of Henry VIII, having ascended to the throne on the death of her sister Mary, was unmarried and held the line of royal succession in her hand. If she were to die without producing an heir, the throne would pass to her cousin in Scotland, who would become queen of both the Scots and the English.
On one level, Josie Rourke's film is a story of two women managing the trials and tribulations of romantic life, and part of its weakness is in trying to put a new spin on the balancing act between finding love, holding down a job and managing the challenges of motherhood. For all that she is a traditional romantic heroine, Mary's struggle lacks much originality – in this sense, it is Elizabeth's story which is the more interesting, and Margot Robbie's portrayal of a conflicted monarch at war with her body, her heart, her mind and her advisors which has the more dramatic interest.
But, it is Mary's film, and as such all the key ingredients of the historic tragedy are woven into the drama, including several true elements from the historical record:
The film works best when not trying to juggle so many historical details, and much of the intrigue and discussion around the English queen's attempts to influence Mary's choice of husband, and for what political ends, is a little unclear. The fickle political landscape as a whole makes for unsatisfying viewing – it's not clear how (and why) Mary's half-brother James switches sides to lead the English army against her, and the film's weakest scenes are the conflicts between Scots and English armies, which lack both scale and sense of importance. This story is not an epic clash of swords and armour, and whilst there were significant battles during Mary's reign, they sit awkwardly in a version of the story which is otherwise much more emotional and cerebral in its focus.
The greatest liberty that the film takes – common to all dramatic versions of the Mary v. Elizabeth story – is the face to face meeting of the two queens. In reality, although attempts were made by Mary to meet her cousin throughout her life, the two women never met. It is a fitting climax to their struggle, though, that the two of them meet here shortly before the end of the film, when Mary flees Scotland to seek sanctuary from Elizabeth in England.
This scene is probably the film's strongest moment, being able to shed all need to cleave to a historical reality, and taking place purely in the space of dramatic invention. It is here, in a humble laundry shack in rural England, that the two women exchange words, and it is astonishing how much drama screenwriter Beau Willimon is able to pack into such a short scene. Both women bare their souls to each other, both are moved to tears, and both bring to bear threats upon the other. That it feels like such a genuine moment of interaction is testament to the skill of the two performers. The film is worth watching for these brief exchanges of dialogue, as the two women work to find a balance with each other. Having apparently found resolution, it is all the more shocking that Elizabeth moves immediately to have her cousin imprisoned.
Mary remained a prisoner of Elizabeth, at various houses and prisons across England, for the next 19 years, and the film finishes as it starts, in the moments leading up to her execution.
The line commonly attributed to Mary - “In my end is my beginning” - shows well her sense of place and perspective, recognising and understanding that her death was just the start of a mythologising of her life, and is the reason why her story remains compelling nearly five-hundred years after her death. This latest film is a worthy and watchable revisiting of a familiar tale, fitting the doomed romantic heroine's story into a narrative for the twenty-first century.
Explore Mary Queen of Scots's Edinburgh with my private city walking tours!
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