Film Review: Mary, Queen of Scots

Mary, Queen of Scots

Release date: December 7, 2018 (USA)
DirectorJosie Rourke
Based on: Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart; by John Guy, 2004
Attended Viewing: The 7:00 p.m. showing at AMC Riverside East Theater on Illinois Street in Chicago, IL on Wednesday December 12, 2018.
StarringSaoirse Ronan as Mary, Queen of Scots, the Queen of Scotland and Margot Robbie as Queen Elizabeth I, the Queen of England and Ireland.

Although historically inaccurate, the film provides entertainment straight from the opening sequence by cleverly transforming Mary’s execution into her arrival by sea in Scotland. Viewers may not realize, as it was quickly mentioned, that Mary was only 18 years old when she returned.  By the time she was 26 years old she had; been proclaimed Queen of Scotland from the age of six days old, married for the first time, reigned as Queen of France, been widowed, married a second time, become a mother, been widowed a second time, been declared an enemy of her people, married a third time, gone into exile and become a prisoner of a foreign nation. Cinematically Director Josie Rourke clearly had a challenge to cover extensive content logically and relatively quickly.

Rourke accomplished this at the start the movie as the story moved efficiently to introduce the major players. The diversity of the cast was not off-putting to the story and perhaps helped keep the figures straight for viewers less versed in the history, names and titles as they were presented with an ensemble of not all Caucasian males.

Ruling in an era of male dominance, Elizabeth and Mary faced the realities of serving in  positions of power and often being thwarted from wielding said power.  This review will adhere to only dominate historical figures rather than discuss every male relationship.  One comment that cannot go unsaid concerns the assumption of Elizbeth’s affair with Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. Such depictions disappoint this reviewer because of the belief that Elizabeth’s political astuteness, and fear of her own legitimacy, would prevent her from jeopardizing her position and international reputation to even be in bed with him let alone have sexual relations. Rouke perpetuates the belief mostly for titillating reasons.

One area the film’s script could have stressed included how politically important Elizabeth’s affliction with the small pox infection was to the State. Without a successor named, the position of the country was in doubt and a crisis ensued by generating leverage all on Mary’s side. The Queen of Scotland was the closest royal relative to the English monarchy who, logic would dictate, Elizabeth should announce as heir.  Why not take this step? Elizabeth, having spent years as the heir presumptive, knew the dangerous position that placed her in as Queen.  She had seen what became of Mary I.  Once designated, an heir apparent or heir presumptive, can create an opposition Court to threaten the power of the sitting monarch.

Mary, quickly realized her increased importance and placed pressure on Queen Elizabeth to announce her as her successor. Why is the English monarch not reciprocating?  Does Elizabeth plan literally to have heirs of her body?  At this time, Elizabeth, in her late twenties, implied she would marry but would be very deliberate in her choice—a policy she maintained well into her 40s while approaching menopause.  Mary’s poisoned arrow of Elizabeth being barren, was getting close to the truth by the time of the film’s climatic scene.

Elizabeth tries to manipulate the selection of spouses for Mary, by offering Robert Dudley.  Rouke’s script has Mary unabashedly denouncing the offer while in reality she had to be a bit more circumspect as here was Elizabeth’s favorite, albeit her rejected suitor.  Robert was so unacceptable to Mary the offer was truly an insult, but one can see the value Elizabeth placed on him as she cynically thought she could control events in Scotland. This historian is pretty sure the English Queen never truly imagined it would happen but used the offer as a way for her to stall for time—a political maneuver she readily employed.

Elizabeth I was often indecisive, vulnerable to the machinations of the courtiers around her and emotional but the excessive reliance on her Secretary of State was a bit over-played in the film.  Cecil knew how to present policy to her so that it maintained her pride and always allowed her the final say, an ideal civil servant.  Showing Mary as the strong, politically astute monarch was acceptable, but that too was over-played. She ruled more by passion than Elizabeth – proof in the fact she became a prisoner of the English after she had lost her throne upon her marrying unwisely twice.

Mary’s courtship of Darnley in the film, showcased the Scottish scenery beautifully and although the contrast between the elegant and sophisticated French Court was not stressed beyond the masques, etc., Mary’s comment to Darnley that the land was worth being queen of, was certainly supported. The crux of this scene was for Mary to imply that Darnley would also be king.  A promise, if ever made, was one that he did historically demand.  Darnley,an immature, deluded drunk, so easily manipulated it cost him not only the throne (Mary could not let him co-rule) but his life.

Kirk o’Field was not well explained, one of the instances in which it would have been wiser to spend time explaining then showing the artsy shots (more on that later).  This was so important as it comes as a response to the death of Rizzio (which by the way, was so theatrically staged as to be tiresome and it was a relief when he died and the shrieking was over) and casts great suspicion on Mary and James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell, Duke of Orkney her trusted nobleman (who emerged a bit quickly in the film).  Bothwell was acquitted after a trial and married Mary. The damage done to the Queen’s reputation cannot be underestimated and the film does not convey this adequately.  Yes, historians now wonder if Bothwell raped Mary and she became pregnant, she miscarried twins by him, and forced her to marry him.  Referred to as a film of feminist themes seems contrary to the continued sexual depictions.  Several of the sexual scenes were not needed. Mary and Darnley’s less than loving copulation was hard to watch in this era of #MeToo and although I am sure Rouke did not intend it to happen, the emergence of the Four Mary’s* upon the Queen’s order for them to pray for her afterwards in the hopes of conception had them falling to their knees simultaneously, encouraged a nervous giggle or two from the audience.  This reviewer does understand the time constraints that Rourke was under, yet one feels compelled to suggest that she include Mary’s courageous escape to Dunbar Castle by horse back while seven months pregnant as an example of a strong woman.

Mary could be reckless and the film’s dialogue proved that when she brought up to Elizabeth that her dad Henry VIII had her mother, Anne Boleyn, executed.  Elizabeth was forced to defend her position, viewed Mary with different eyes and reflected upon her constant attempts to historically align herself to Henry VIII’s rule.  See blog entries, and to learn how Elizabeth’s felt her legitimacy demanded that she link herself to Henry, his style of rule and his power.  The female ruler needing justification beyond herself.

Performing the duties of a woman, procreating, is the very element that is Mary’s downfall.  The attacks on her virtue and her role as a deviant woman in power, is just the fodder that John Knox needs.  His willing audience of Protestant Scots easily believed the most debase allegations in an era of history when men dominated. The threat of powerful women allowed Knox to become influential. He knew how to play on fears (Protestant vs. Catholic, woman rulers deviating from the natural order, people displaying nonconformist characteristics) and how to titillate with outrageous rumors.  He was not concerned if they were true, just if they were believed (modern links are too scary to think about).

The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women followed by the Second and Third Blasts attacked the rule of women in the time period: Mary of Guise as Regent of Scotland; Mary Tudor, Queen of England; Elizabeth I; and, Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland using such words as monstrous and unnatural to describe the idea of a woman’s domination over men.  Knox was emphatic that it was against nature and even God’s word. Finding a ready audience, Knox blamed the “abominable empire of wicked women” for the challenges and troubles facing the world at that time. Any slight change from hard line thought was game.  Mary’s tolerance toward religious practice, a historic fact, Knox deemed unacceptable.  Her wish to practice her Catholic faith and allow everyone to choose theirs he found suspicious.  The film’s depiction of Mary’s generous acceptance of her secretary’s homosexual relationship with Darnley is not documented historically and we assume matches those ideas of the French, further ammunition for Knox.

Mary’s champion through this, her brother, James Stuart, 1st Earl of Moray and previous Regent of Scotland, was conflicted.  Rouke portrayed the contradiction of James Stuart, as he was power-hungry and also loyal to his half-sister and the family. Moray’s dialogue with Mary revealed his attempts to try to explain his affection for her but also his political astuteness that if she continued to let her passions rule her, peace would not be kept.  The several scenes are necessary, but someone unfamiliar with the history of Moray’s role would be hard pressed to follow his activity.  A tad more explanation could have helped show the reasons for his being with Mary, then gone, then back as he tried to temper Mary’s actions yet ultimately took arms against her.

Her passion was Mary’s greatest asset and greatest weakness. The film had Elizabeth comment on the fact that Mary’s gifts were her downfall.  She could command loyalty by her charm and her cultured personality (honed at the Court of France) and she could passionately cling to an idea or person to the deterrent of everything else. Thus, her marriages to Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, and later Bothwell after the debacle of Kirk o’Field were her Achilles’ heel. Knowing her reputation was at stake after the trial of Bothwell and her marriage to him, Mary appealed to Elizabeth in a series of letters to understand and support her.

She wrote, “…our realm not thoroughly purged of the factions and conspiracies that of long time have continued….  These occurring so frequently had…so wearied and broken us that by ourself we are not able …to sustain the pains and labor in our own person that were requisite for repressing of the insolence and sedition of our rebellious subjects. They are, as is known, a people as factious amongst themselves and as factious toward the ruler…. For their satisfaction,…it behoved us, moved by their prayers and requests to yield unto one marriage or another.”

Mary then implored Elizabeth to “extend her friendship to our husband…and to bear him and us no less goodwill than if all had proceeded to this hour with the knowledge and advice of our dearest sister, whom you shall assure to find him ready to do her all the honor and service that she can require of him.”

In her letter to Elizabeth explaining her marriage to Bothwell, Mary stressed the political necessity of her marriage to Bothwell based on the upheaval in the country and her belief that only a native-born Scot could control the situation. She wrote these were the “true occasions which has moved us to take the Duke of Orkney to husband.”

Scripted in the film, was Elizabeth’s proclamation of herself becoming more of a man than a woman in order to wield power and her discussion with William Cecil, Lord Burghley in which she knew politically she had to accept that England would support a rebellion in Scotland but also knew she did not want any connection to it.  Elizabeth was always sensitive to the treatment of fellow, divinely appointed, monarchs and especially to ‘sister’ monarchs.  English reactions to the Scottish turmoil required delicate handling be it to support the rebellion in favor of English interests— all beyond the projected cinematic reason of jealousy of Mary. Elizabeth understood within the sisterhood, the dual roles a reigning queen held of sovereign and propagator of the next generation of rulers.  With Mary being of her sex and her blood, she still could not let her heart rule her head.  In the film, when Mary went too far at the fictional meeting and predicted that Elizabeth would not execute her sister Queen. Mary’s recklessness led to Bess of Hardwick, not a true confidant of the Queen, being given orders to take her somewhere ‘safe.’  Bess’s husband was eventually held the physical and financial responsibility of restraining Mary in house arrest for many years.  Mary was not under his care when she was implicated in a rebellion which led to her execution—19 years later. Perhaps Mary was not so far off in predicting her protection by Elizabeth; James IV ‘s stable reign could be attributed to Elizabeth’s guidance and protection.

Both women knew, and were irritated by the fact, they are bound to the stereotypical sexism of their era and were, to a large extent, controlled by the powerful and power-hungry men around them. Are these elements which make for feminist themes in a movie? Many reviews a touting Rouke’s feminist angle. This reviewer takes the approach that feminism was not the core; frustration at the advisers / councilors who were constantly plotting to weaken the Queens’ power with an added element of derisiveness toward a female ruler, was.

Were Elizabeth and Mary each other’s enemies or were the true enemies the male courtiers around them and various male claimants to the throne?  The Queens were not in it for a cat fight; it did not hinge on the perception that Mary was younger and better looking than Elizabeth. These women were reasonable, strong and passionate about their roles in life as queens in a misogynistic era which did not allow them to wield unquestionable power.  A question which emerges, is what did they want to do with the power? Both express their sense of responsibility to serve their people. Neither figure was portrayed beyond wanting to preserve their throne just because it was theirs.  The motivation of each queen was to her family, either the one in the making in Mary’s case, or loyalty to the one of the past for Elizabeth. Is that serving the countries’ people?  Even in contemporary times, the hierarchy of monarchy generates the question of service to what?  Truly, does Queen Elizabeth II serve her people or her family?  Does she adhere to her sense of duty and tradition to ensure her people have new hospitals opened or so that her family has a set position and lifestyle?

The film is entertaining, however, the training this reviewer has as a historian does force an expression of disappointment (not disapproval as it is a fictional work) that there are too many large distortions of the historical facts. It is understandable the need to use cinematic devices (the meeting between the rulers and the letters quoted during the final scenes) to forward a great deal of information over a large time span and even understandable for the use of Mary’s Scottish accent instead of French, but the meeting between the two monarchs was a bit too much to overcome.  The visual fluttering of the gauze curtains, caused all understanding of the symbolism to be lost because it was too distracting.  Elizabeth would have been more in charge, her vulnerability would perhaps surface in other ways than in her taking off her wig and basically putting the conflicts down to looks.  A tone further stressed by the ending which portrayed Mary as a beautiful, young woman while Elizabeth was revealed in the persona created in her later years to present a constant façade of regal power.

*The ladies in waiting are pivotal in many cases as they protect their queen, anticipate her needs, provide needed information and comfort when they can—knowing they will never have the position in which Elizabeth or Mary are in. In Scotland, Mary tried with her four Maries (the young girls who accompanied her to France and returned with her to Scotland) to recreate some of the familiarity of their childhood within the splendor of the French Court.   Mary Livingston, Mary Fleming, Mary Seton and Mary Beaton (who did catch the eye of the English Ambassador, Thomas Randolph and managed to gain diplomatic information from him), were with Queen Mary from the time she was sent to France.  Interestingly, only Mary Seton remained with the Queen at the time of her execution.