Helen Tope reviews Mary Queen of Scots, showing in our cinema until Thursday 14 March.
A power struggle to the bitter end, Mary Queen of Scots depicts the Queen’s extraordinary fall from grace. Set between Mary’s arrival in Scotland in 1561, until her execution in 1587, this film charts her progress from Queen of Scotland, and mother to its heir – to a prisoner of the British Crown.
The great-niece of Henry VIII, and in the eyes of Catholics, a more viable prospect for the British throne than its Protestant ruler, Elizabeth I, Mary moves back to Scotland after her brief marriage to the Dauphin of France. The Dauphin dies unexpectedly, leaving Mary as a young widow. She is the only surviving child of King James V, and returns to Scotland to claim her throne.
Mary’s return sparks a rebellion among Scottish Catholics. In an attempt to shore up her legitimacy, Mary marries Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley and has a son, James. She is now a Queen with an heir. Elizabeth has none. The rebellion gets out of hand, and during an uprising, Lord Darnley’s residence is bombed, and he is found murdered in the garden. More a liability than an asset, Mary is forced to abdicate in favour of her son. She flees to England, seeking Elizabeth’s protection. Elizabeth places her under armed guard. Mary has lost the crown, and any prospect of salvation. She spends nearly twenty years in confinement, until evidence is presented to Elizabeth of Mary’s alleged involvement in an assassination plot against the Queen. Elizabeth has no choice but to sign her cousin’s death warrant.
In a story as complicated as this, the question for the film-maker is what angle to play. Directed by Josie Rourke (also Artistic Director of the Donmar Warehouse), the story is shot from her perspective, exploring the tensions between the two rulers. They were both family and foe – a relationship that could safely be described as complicated.
The difficulty in casting Mary is finding an actor with both youth and experience. Saoirse Ronan, a gifted actor with several credits to her name, finds in Mary a fierce, clear-eyed intelligence. Even when events conspire against her, she understands the game, that is played. Ronan comes of age in this performance, and has the whip-hand of Margot Robbie’s Elizabeth I. Unusually shown to us in a position of weakness, Robbie gives us the fragility of a Queen more usually seen as an English Lion.
Robbie sidesteps the usual traits meted out in performances of the Queen. Here, she is not a dragon or a petulant child. Robbie’s Queen is deliberately vulnerable; open to attack. Elizabeth’s alabaster mask, worn at the very end of the film, not only hides her smallpox scars, but solidifies her presence. It is only as Mary is executed, that Elizabeth seizes the throne unequivocally and unopposed.
As the film’s screenwriter, Beau Willimon’s previous work includes the reboot of House of Cards, and he applies what he knows about political machination to this script. Subject to grasping, greedy politicians – neither Queen can rest easy. Even the birth of a male heir is not enough to protect Mary; the men around her continue to vouch for her best interests.
This is history very much from the feminist perspective; Mary and Elizabeth are highly capable as rulers. They are educated, accomplished and astute. Elizabeth’s 45-year-reign is testament as much to her tenacity as her political guile. For all their scheming, the men who surround the Queens are temporary and replaceable. Josie Rourke uses the camera to emphasise this, with sweeping, panoramic vistas of the Scottish Highlands. The characters, as they move from one scene to the next, are specks on the landscape. The land will endure long past those who would control it.
Being directed by Rourke, the film borrows a great deal from theatre. In fabulous set pieces, Rourke gives us the Scottish Court, populated by Mary and her ladies-in-waiting. They are thoroughly intimidating, even to the Scottish Lords who have made the Court their home in Mary’s absence. By comparison, Elizabeth’s Court is less stagey, more workmanlike. Here, the business of ruling a country is sweated over as she works with her advisor, William Cecil (another great performance from Guy Pearce). Mary puts on a show, not for effect – but because she must.
In working with Elizabethan drama, the costume automatically moves to the forefront. Rourke, working with designer Alexandra Byrne, recognises that for Elizabethans, clothes were more than fashion or function. Your clothes announced who you were, and what you hoped to become. Dressing for the job you want is an idea the Elizabethans would definitely recognise. The men here are suited and booted – but noticeably, they blend in with each other. When Elizabeth moves through Court, the courtiers bow and scrape as one being.
Mary and Elizabeth, by comparison, dress for success. Mary’s palette of blues and greys mimic the bruising Scottish sky. She adds youthful edge with her styling – sculpted hair, brushed back from an unlined face. Wearing mismatched earrings (a controversial choice among history buffs) – Mary is fertility and promise, down to the finest detail.
In tackling Elizabeth I, Alexandra Byrne (who has previous form, dressing Cate Blanchett in both Elizabeth films), has the challenge of whether to continue with what has gone before, or show us something new. The answer here is to do a little of both; we see Elizabeth bare-faced, recovering from smallpox, wearing serviceable but dull greens and browns. As she evolves through the film, dress becomes armour as the threat to her crown increases. In the final scenes, Elizabeth has become fearsome, unquestioning, irrefutably regal. Elizabeth has had to toughen up; adopt supposedly masculine traits in order to survive. But with her costumes, we are being reminded that the woman is what we see first. In bold, primary colours, Elizabeth dresses to inspire as well as intimidate. Nominated for Best Costume Design across the board this Awards Season, Alexandra Byrne delivers Elizabethan power dressing with absolute clarity.
Plugging gaps in the narrative is always a tough call in historical drama – and here the film works its way towards a meeting between Mary and Elizabeth. The women meet in a secluded location. Each sets down their cards; where they are prepared to move forward, and where they must stand firm. Robbie and Ronan use this opportunity to explore the emotional disparity of these two cousins. While Mary envies Elizabeth’s strength as an established ruler, Elizabeth points out that Mary is the one with a healthy heir, ready to supersede them both. There is common ground here, made all the more extraordinary as we know how the story ends.
In watching this scene, it is important to remember that it is entirely fictional. The Queens never met. The scene serves the film well – it is a chance for Rourke to show off what Robbie and Ronan can do. A film based on courtly correspondence and sexed-up portraits would not be an edifying cinematic experience.
While many have questioned the validity of not only inserting a fictional scene, but centring an entire film around it – the point missed here is that Rourke is making a film, not a documentary. There will always be the pedants who rail against this detail or that expression. While there are some facts we can know absolutely, it is important to remember that the history of these two women has been largely defined by men – historians handing down versions of events through the centuries. What Mary Queen of Scots attempts, and to some degree succeeds, is in redressing the balance and telling the story a different way.
We can only know so much about these women, and what this film dares to do is to imagine their relationship meeting somewhere between loyalty and rivalry. Under different circumstances, Mary and Elizabeth would have made powerful allies. As it was, there could only be one outcome.
Mary Queen of Scots presents us with a character study of two women trying to assert themselves as leaders. For both, it was a struggle that came at an immense cost. In creating a meeting between the two, we come to understand a little more about them. The drive, the ambition and the price that must always be paid. By taking a risk, Rourke presents us with a Mary and Elizabeth that feel more human, more fallible. In doing so, the film presents us with a world that feels as chaotic and unpredictable as the present day. As the film concludes, Rourke leaves us with a single thought, as relevant today as it was for Mary and Elizabeth: history, however it’s written, is never a sure thing.