Hey, fundamentalist Christians! You know that King James whose Bible you love so much? The one who also presided over the unification of the Scottish, Irish and English Crowns? A pretty consequential individual, yes? And a quite deliberate existence, the result of Mary, Queen of Scots uniting with Henry Stuart to produce an heir to the throne.
As you might imagine, Mary, Queen of Scots is not about him, although he clearly plays a key role in the history on display here. Instead, it is about the disputed claim to the throne between Mary (a great Saoirse Ronan) and Queen Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie, fantastic).
Director Josie Rourke, working from a script by Beau Willimon based on a biographical book by John Guy, moves the narrative back and forth between Mary and Elizabeth, who were cousins, and their respective counsels either advising or outright manipulating — or, in some instances, worse — their queens, fearful of the other posing a threat to their own monarch’s position. There are occasional messages sent back and forth, by the two women share all of one scene together, a rather consequential one near the end of the film. Aside from the choice to have them walking through hanging linens as though in a maze, it’s a tense exchange that’s worth the wait.
It comes perhaps as little surprise that the trailers to Mary, Queen of Scots would suggest it is only about these two women vying for power. In a different era, they may well have gotten along better, but for the men surrounding them with their superiority complexes. The way the story is told here, it would seem Queen Elizabeth’s choice never to marry was a shrewd one, as it kept those conspiring to usurp her at bay. Mary of Scotland, widowed twice over, was not so lucky.
Still, this movie presents both these women as having natural assumptions of their own superiority, a very specific kind of hubris borne of bloodlines and perceived birthrights. They both have faith in their own rightful claim to the English throne. And Mary, having been raised a Catholic, returned from France after being widowed at nineteen to a country largely wary of how she would approach bloody rivalries between Catholics and Protestants that have gone on for centuries.
It is this backdrop that is slightly oversimplified in Mary, Queen of Scots, one zealot constantly cut to as the movie goes on, showing him half-screaming sermons in a church to a rapt audience, systematically convinced that Mary is a harlot undeserving of their respect.
And Mary does not have the greatest luck with relationships, Henry Stuart evidently having more interest in the men in her court (and one in particular) than in her. Both women are playing the same game, but with a different set of rules. Elizabeth keeps the romance, and even the close relationships, at an arm’s length, and it proves to be a choice to her advantage. Mary is just as convinced of her own savvy as well as her own righteousness, and her quickness to produce an heir was itself a smart move.
As to which of these formidable women ultimately came out on top, that is perhaps up to debate — and food for thought as this story plays out. Given both history and the fact that the film’s opening scene depicts the lead-up to it, it’s hardly a spoiler to say Mary was ultimately beheaded. But with one single child she changed the course of history. Did she lose?
There’s no denying the feminist bent to Mary, Queen of Scots, and how appropriate it is to the time might better be determined by historians with more intimate knowledge than I possess. There is no question that it’s appropriate to the present day, though it does make one wonder about the extent of poetic license, embellishment or anachronism. Either way, it makes for a compelling story.