The tale of cousins Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots is an infamous one: one that anyone with a minor curiosity for history will have encountered. The story was guaranteed to be captivating, but the real challenge for director Josie Rourke was bringing this story into the 21st century. And Rourke succeeded tremendously. A maelstrom of sex, religion and power, the film platforms issues of gender inequality in a way equally relevant for the 16th and 21st centuries.
Saoirse Ronan’s performance as Mary is as gritty as it is raw. Her soft yet striking facial features embody the personality she so effortlessly portrays. Despite the Queen of Scots’ place in history exuding one of promiscuity and privilege, the film takes a more personable representation: a Queen whose closest betrayed her. Ronan’s heart-wrenching portrayal of the denial of Mary to remain with her desperately sobbing young son, James VI, demanded by her own half-brother, was one scene in particular that commanded emotion from its audience. It was one of two tear-jerking moments for me. Not only does the birth of Mary’s son bring softness to a defiant, proud monarch, but her acceptance and tolerance in general shocks viewers throughout. Her adoration for her black, transgender secretary, played by Ismael Cruz Cordova, although touching and, must I say it, progressive, is perhaps one way in which the film’s hopes for the title character are eccentrically optimistic.
Elizabeth I’s depiction by Margot Robbie was equally as brilliantly emotionally turbulent. The Virgin Queen, subject of gender scrutiny both in her time and by the standards of today, was perhaps the hardest role in the film to assume. Robbie, however, brings life to the stony, political Queen. Elizabeth’s internal battles with infertility and insecurity seep through both her emotional and physical facades, underlined more obviously by her struggle between ruling with her heart, or her head. Her sorrow at her inability to bear a child is poignantly exposed in a scene which cuts from her cousin birthing a son surrounded by her loyal ‘sisters,’ to the Queen of England sat solemnly on the floor, a red, self-woven tapestry cascading from between her legs. I cannot help but feel that both Queens are done an injustice, though, when, after years of envy and deceit, they finally meet in a steamy room filled with billowing bed linen – an odd scene to say the least. Elizabeth’s moment of realisation that she ‘had nothing to envy’ of Mary, and a sudden regaining of self-assurance, however, is particularly powerful, as she stands against an unadorned mise en scène of worn sheets. Robbie’s best acting is showcased here: outstandingly raw and emotional, she and her character become one profound force.
Despite merely touching upon Mary Queen of Scots’ years of imprisonment, and subsequent involvement in the Babington plot, an infamous assassination attempt by the Catholics to overthrow Elizabeth I, the film is teeming with drama and scandal. From Jack Lowden’s enthralling portrayal of Mary’s husband Lord Darnley’s alcoholism and abuse, to David Tennant’s unrecognisable depiction of radical protestant John Knox’s scathing hatred for ‘murderous harlot’ Mary, the film is dominated by a hateful, ‘cruel’ portrayal of men. Mary Queen of Scots’ forced marriage to the Earl of Bothwell, the man who previously murdered her husband, played by James Hepburn, is notably harrowing. His rape of Mary in a graphic, brutal scene is incredibly difficult to watch yet inevitably foreseen, mirroring the violent behaviours of the men who sought her overthrowal, and the council who disembowelled her beloved secretary in front of her. The contrast between men’s insatiable loathe for Mary, and Elizabeth’s respectful, somewhat quiet all-male council is stark, and poses a motive behind Elizabeth I’s insistence that she is ‘more of a man than a woman.’
Lest I say, Mary Queen of Scots left me even more captivated by the infamous figures of Britain’s historic monarchy, despite an ending perhaps more suited to a contemporary dance production than a film about two ferocious Queens.
Mary Queen of Scots is currently showing at the The Dukes in Lancaster.