Mary Queen of Scots

January 24, 2019
A tale of two Queens and their hard-working hair dressers

Remember the Monty Python sketch: “Yoo are Mary Queen of Scots?”
“I am”
Crash, bang wallop!

Well there’s plenty of bang in Josie Rourke’s new bio pic, but nothing to laugh about. There have been so many movies about the cousins and rival queens, Mary and Elizabeth, that I could spend this entire column listing them and making comparisons. It’d be a fascinating exercise but there’s neither time nor space to sit poring over the Hollywood back catalogue.

Although I’m focussing exclusively on the new film it’s worth noting that Rourke and scriptwriter, Beau Willimon, have followed a precedent that goes right back to Friedrich Schiller’s play of 1800, Maria Stuart, in staging a face-to-face meeting between Mary and Elizabeth. Such a meeting never happened, as the queens communicated solely by letters, but dramatic logic makes it essential.

The scene in which the meeting takes place is one of the more imaginative set pieces. The two women circle each other in a room draped with diaphanous sheets of linen, playing hide and seek, as Mary tries to catch a glimpse of Elizabeth’s face. The exchange begins courteously with Mary growing gradually more assertive as she closes in on her quarry. It’s a dramatically effective creation that testifies to Rourke’s background in the theatre, but it also underlines what is most dissatisfying in the way these figures are portrayed.

The strangest aspect is the peevish insecurity of Elizabeth, who seems intimidated by her cousin’s beauty and intelligence while feeling a sense of feminine solidarity that transcends the enmities of their male advisors. It may be impossible to make sweeping judgements about Elizabeth’s personality at this distance, but rarely has been cast as such a neurotic mess. It’s plausible she felt unhappy about being disfigured by small pox scars, and depressed by the thought she would never bear a child and heir, but this queen was one tough cookie.

The complaints in the Australian media that Margot Robbie hasn’t scored an Oscar nomination appear vapid when one considers the way the part has been written. By turns passive and hysterical, this Elizabeth is dominated by her male courtiers, who thwart all her best, proto-feminist impulses, while never developing personalities of their own. If anyone deserves an Oscar it’s the make-up artists that managed to make Robbie look so frightful.

The film really belongs to Saoirse Ronan, although her Mary is equally beseiged by male arrogance. She is more self-confident and commanding than Elizabeth, but by virtue of being both a Catholic and a woman she stirs up fierce opposition among the Scots, under the leadership of rabble-rousing Protestant extremist, John Knox (David Tennant). She may be the monarch but she is not safe from personal abuse, or able to forestall acts of political violence among her treacherous retainers. In old Scotland it was not so great to be queen.

The film commences with the best-known incident in Mary’s life, namely her death. As she is led to the block to be beheaded, we flash back to the past, beginning with Mary’s arrival from France to reclaim the throne of Scotland. For the following two hours we thread our way through the confusing politics of the era, pausing for occasional interludes of sex and violence. It’s fortunate we don’t have to sit through the actual execution as it required three blows of the axe.

Scriptwriter, Beau Willimon, known as the creator of the TV series, House of Cards, is right at home with this amalgam of political intrigue, desperate ambition and desire. There may be no historical record of Mary being fellated by Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden) but it’s one of the scenes that spice up a tale in which the politics can be wearisome.

It’s accepted that Mary’s marriage to Lord Darnley was a mistake. It’s also accepted that Darnley was a drunken, bi-sexual no-hoper who could turn on the charm when it suited him. All of these traits are pushed to the limit in this film, with Darnley becoming a negative example of the pressures under which LGBTQ people laboured, while Mary’s favourite courtier, David Rizzio (Ismael Cruz Cordoba), provides a more benign yet tragic example.

This is but one instance of the way in which Rourke insists on viewing the Elizabethan era through the frame of our own political obsessions. The treatment of Mary and Elizabeth is straight out of the #MeToo handbook, while the ethnic diversity of the Scottish and English courts is truly astounding. Black actor, Adrian Lester, plays the English emissary, Lord Randolph, while Gemma Chan (last seen in Crazy Rich Asians) is Elizabeth’s lady-in-waiting, Bess of Hardwick.

OK, it’s all pantomime and make-believe, but there will be lots of people watching this movie who accept this as a truthful picture of British society at that time. The director may feel she is practising affirmative action but when applied to historical events in which sets and costumes are intended to be convincing, this is a deeply ideological gesture. Although bathed in the glow of political correctness it’s no better than having Chinese actors play Japanese characters in Geisha, or employing Aussie, Michael Pate, as a specialist Red Indian.

With Mary Queen of Scots one can appreciate the qualities of the acting, the script and the camera-work, but it’s tricky enough trying to follow the politics of the time without having to make allowance for our contemporary political preoccupations. On calm reflection I preferred the Monty Python version.

Mary Queen of Scots
Directed by Josie Rourke
Written by Beau Willimon, after a book by John Guy
Starring Saoirse Ronan, Margot Robbie, Jack Lowden, James McArdle, Ismael Cruz Cordova, Martin Compston, Adrian Lester, Joe Alwyn, Guy Pearce, Ian Hart
UK, rated MA 15+, 124 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, 26 January, 2019