The problem with ‘Mary Queen of Scots’

Visually sumptuous but historically ludicrous, Josie Rourke’s attempt at a feminist re-telling of this 16th Century game of thrones ultimately falls foul of the same old tropes that plague historical storytelling.

Cards on the table: I am a historian. So perhaps it’s not quite fair for me to critique this film which is clearly not entirely based in fact. It’s hard to stay completely true to the historical material and create a film that is entertaining to a modern audience. I know that. And, as Suzanna Lipscombe has pointed out, the some of the film’s most exciting and surprising plot points: “the strange attempt by Elizabeth to marry Mary to Robert Dudley; the marriage between Mary and Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley, who really was a drunken bisexual, found in bed with musician David Rizzio; the spectacular assassinations,” are all true. There are even some moments of historical tenability that are remarkably under explored, Elizabeth I’s smallpox attack, for instance. But part of the problem with Mary Queen of Scots was that its inaccuracies didn’t actually make it any spicier. Mary’s Scottish accent in the film added nothing and doesn’t make much sense as she had spent most of her life in France and therefore, if anything, would have had a French accent. It could be conceded that she would have often spoken in her native Scots whilst back in Scotland, are we therefore to suspend our disbelief and pretend that they are speaking Scots? It’s hard to say.

 The more pressing historical discrepancy would have to be the meeting between Mary (Saoirse Ronan) and Elizabeth (Margot Robbie), which never actually happened. Though, the film does make an excuse for itself by stating that the meeting was secret and therefore not on the historical record. A bit of a cop out but a decent defence. I just can’t help but feel that Hollywood can do better. The Tudor (and Stuart) period is such a juicy slice of time in British history. In fact, it’s often the case that the facts are just as – if not more – interesting than the dramatisation. It’s already risqué, brimming with sex, murder and intrigue. This period can read as an old-timey, pseudo-intellectual version of a HELLO!

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Their aptitude for scandal almost makes it too easy. But just because you can turn the Tudors and Stuarts into caricatures resembling C-list celebrities in tacky magazines doesn’t mean you should. And that’s where Mary Queen of Scots starts to go wrong. The accent and the fictional meeting are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the problematic representation of history here. Rourke’s adaptation is not the enlightened intellectual thriller that it claims to be. Rather, it becomes a gaudy tale of female rivalry more akin to a soap opera than a revisionist re-telling of a nuanced and intricate chapter in history.

Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie as Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I with a defiant gaze pose for the film poster with the caption 'BOW TO NO ONE'

BOW TO NO ONE boom the film’s promotional posters and yet there is no such rebellion, there is no such departure from your run of the mill bodice-ripper. We’ve seen a strong Elizabeth before, we’ve seen a strong Mary before. Most notably in Cate Blanchett’s performance as the former in Elizabeth (1998) and in Katherine Hepburn’s portrayal of the latter in Mary of Scotland (1936). At least since the 30’s we’ve seen the feminist agenda played out via a fiery, independent Queen Mary asserting her authority over her chauvinist inferiors: “I’m going to live my own life, do as I say!” Less surprising was the similarly proud outburst in the 90’s in Elizabeth, “I will have one mistress here! And no master!” – an actual quote from the real Elizabeth I. Clearly, attention to the proto-feminist potential of both queens is no new thing. So what is this 2018 version actually bringing to the table?

There is a notable – somewhat successful – attempt to interrogate the sexist limitations that were consistently pushed on both women. Ronan and Robbie each do a good job of conveying the frustrations born of being a 16th century political dichotomy: monarch and woman. The audience is often confronted with the historical reality that Tudor men did not much care for bowing to a woman’s will, queen or not. As Lord Randolph (Adrian Lester) illustrates in a hushed aside: “How did the world come to this? Wise men servicing the whims of women?” This concept is furthered, brilliantly, by David Tenant’s venom-spitting fanatical John Knox who declares: “We have a scourge upon our land. Tis a woman with a crown,” and later leading his congregation in Scotland in a chant, denouncing their queen as a “whore.”

close up of Saoirse Ronan as Mary Queen of Scots confronting Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie)

The overriding tragedy in Mary Queen of Scots is that Elizabeth cannot hold out against her scores of male advisers who seem hellbent on poisoning her mind against her cousin and fellow queen. Mary and Elizabeth write letters to each other throughout the film, with Mary insisting that they “rule side by side in harmony. Not through a treaty drafted by men lesser than ourselves.” Elizabeth responds in like: “let our nations cherish each other, as we would. Two kingdoms united.” And later Mary implores Elizabeth, “Do not play into their hands…I know your heart has more within it than the men who counsel you.” It is clear that the film advocates for a united front, presenting a heartfelt plea for female unity, very much in keeping with the Me Too age. This appeal to modern feminism and 21st century sensibilities is surely one of the film’s gifts.

In their final showdown, however, Elizabeth tells Mary “your gifts will be your downfall.” This heavy foreshadowing of Mary’s fate becomes an unfortunate metaphor for the film’s feminist allegory. For all the initial pleasantries and comradeship between the two queens, the message ultimately falls flat. Not just because Elizabeth eventually betrays their bond of female loyalty, more due to the film’s unoriginal focus on a personal competition between them. Far from presenting an intelligent biopic worthy of history’s most formidable queens, it belittles their complex relationship to a petty rivalry over “who’s prettier? Who’s married? Who has a baby? Who’s a better woman?” Which must ultimately leave us with the question: can we not do better than this? This reductionist, constantly replayed obsession with personal enmity? There is no credible historical record of this supposed interpersonal bitterness. Therefore there is no basis for Mary Queen of Scots to boil down “the arcane details of centuries-old diplomacy to a personal beef between two massive celebrities.” Can we please move past this fictitious 16th century catfight?

Margot Robbie as Elizabeth I in Mary Queen of Scots in iconic white makeup and red wig

True, both queens are presented as talented and intelligent, but much of that goes to waste. The film is too invested in Mary’s romantic drama, but its most unforgivable crime is its disservice to Elizabeth. It reduces one of the most consequential women in English history to a snivelling mess with little to do other than survive a nasty bout of smallpox, run hysterically into Dudley’s arms and wonder what she’d look like pregnant. Robbie, a very capable actor by all accounts, is not handed a version of Elizabeth that she can get her teeth into. That said, Robbie brings a humanity and sense of human vulnerability to the role. And there is an interesting dimension in which she can explore the difficulties Elizabeth faced, being a non-traditional queen- unlike Mary she is unmarried and childless (and constantly berated by her advisers for it). But the film implies that Elizabeth refuses to marry in part due to a fear of being discovered barren and/or feeling more like a man than a woman. There isn’t much historical evidence to back either of these ideas, save for Bram Stroker’s bizarre theory that Elizabeth was in fact a man. Had the equally interesting (in my humble opinion) historical reality been explored, that being that Elizabeth used her eligible status to her political advantage, her character would have been much stronger and more in keeping with the film’s feminist overtones.

Ronan as Mary Queen of Scots being undressed and gossiping with her ladies in waiting

Mary Queen of Scots’ insistence on the all-encompassing benevolence of the titular character is a big part of the problem. It is understandable that Rourke and writer Beau Willimon wished to present a multi-dimensional, sympathetic version of Mary as opposed to the one-note villain she has previously been portrayed as. Mary Stuart was seemingly very worthy of praise for a number of reasons. It is true, for example, that Mary (a Catholic) was happy to let her subjects “live as they list“, worshipping as they saw fit. She seems to have been cosmopolitan and notably tolerant for the standards of her time. But in Mary Queen of Scots her understanding nature and generosity apparently know no bounds. She tells David Rizzio (Ismael Cruz-Cordova) her gay and gender-nonconforming secretary/best friend when he expresses his comfort in wearing women’s clothing “Be whomever you wish with us.” An unlikely sentiment for a 16th century Catholic queen but not absolutely impossible. When Rizzio betrays her by sleeping with her new husband – on their wedding night, no less – she’s as serene as the Virgin Mother, immediately forgives and consoles him, “You have not betrayed your nature.” Now, that pushes past the point of credulity.

Ronan as Mary Queen of Scots socialising with David Rizzio and ladies in waiting with her dog in front of an open fire

More importantly, from a historical perspective, the film never acknowledges the very real possibility that Mary did plot to assassinate Elizabeth. The root cause of the divide between Mary and Elizabeth is never adequately addressed in the film; like so many political and military clashes at the time, it was religious rather than personal in nature. Mary, a Catholic with a claim to the English throne was favoured by Catholics across Europe who aimed to depose Elizabeth. The English queen’s Protestant ministers on the other hand, feared and distrusted Mary due to her being a legitimate threat. This reality may have trumped any supposed bond they had.

It’s unlikely that either wanted the other dead from the get-go but circumstance and personal preservation seemed to push them both into a position they would rather not have been in. As history has taught us time and time again, queens rarely have the same choices women do. In their attempts to keep Mary from playing the villain, Rourke and Willimon have created not only a martyr but a totally unbelievable feminist superhero, bereft of the failings and complexities of human nature.

Mary could have come across as a much stronger, not to mention more believable and interesting, character if her moral ambiguity were explored. In the latter period of her life, a time marked by imprisonment (and a likely growing resentment for the cousin who put her there), she simply appears as a victim of Elizabeth’s mistrust. The idea that that mistrust may have been justified never comes into the picture. Bear in mind, Mary was a queen in her own right who, as is pointed out in the film, believed herself to be Elizabeth’s superior and the rightful heir to the English throne. Surely, then, she could not simply submit and allow herself to be humiliated and imprisoned by her so-called inferior when freedom and dominion over Scotland and England were within her grasp? Would an audience really blame her for attempting to reassert her position as queen? Evidently, it doesn’t matter. Rourke and Willimon aren’t so interested in the political or religious realities of Mary’s world as they are in the supposed gender-based conflicts of her life.

Robbie as Elizabeth I in Mary Queen of Scots having her hair dressed by Bess of Hardwick (Gemma Chan)

There is much standing between what the film wants to be and what it actually is. It tries so hard to score woke points with its feminist overture, LGBT characters and marked inclusion of actors of colour. It does succeed in bringing traditionally overlooked groups into the foreground. But ultimately it fails on both counts to deliver on an exploration of any of the historical realities facing these marginalised groups, in regard to both gender and race.

The decision to cast people of colour in roles as courtiers in 16th Century England and Scotland in Mary Queen of Scots was largely praised. But still, predictably, attracted criticism from some historical purists and – let’s face it – white supremacists. Rourke’s decision was an understandable one, she made it clear that colourblind casting a period drama was important to her, due to her feeling that black and other people of colour being left out of such portrayals and films was an injustice: “I was really clear, I would not direct an all-white period drama. Adrian, who plays, Lord Randolph, grew up 40 miles from the birthplace of William Shakespeare; he is one of our eminent Shakespearean actors. I needed to cast an ambassador who could move between the two courts and help this make sense. I don’t understand why you wouldn’t cast him.”

As Trey Williams has pointed out for the TheWrap “There were people of colour in England during that time. According to the UK national archives, Elizabeth would have employed black servants and musicians, and even had a black chambermaid, though seeing a person of color as high up as Lord Randolph would have been improbable. Rourke said, however, that she didn’t see any reason that these actors couldn’t play these prominent roles in Mary Queen of Scots.”

Adrian Lester as Lord Randolph in Mary Queen of Scots at Mary's court in Scotland

Though there is a clear attempt on Rourke’s part to portray a more enlightened period drama, it inadvertently does almost the opposite, smoothing away the ugly realities of history. Most people were not woke in 16th century England and Scotland. By portraying colourblind courts, the historical context is ignored and the actuality of limitations and prejudices placed on people of colour, particularly black people in Europe, is not addressed. English references to black people in literature of the early modern period were brief and stereotyped, “Africans were explicitly related to apes, defined by unruly sexuality, a lack of reason, violence, and ugliness.” Scotland and the rest of Europe generally followed a similar line of thought (with some notable exceptions and deviations). It is therefore historically irresponsible and a grossly excessive use of artistic license to pretend that European royals would have given people of colour even the semblance of power or influence.

 Perhaps Mary Queen of Scots is not the right film to address these issues. But casting actors of colour in historical dramas, playing roles such as Lord Randolph and Bess of Hardwick, people who stood at the pinnacle of Elizabethan society, may not be the right way to go about it. These positions, in reality, would have been exclusively reserved for the very white social elite of European countries. Colourblind casting is hardly revolutionary- white actors have been butchering roles that were meant for people of colour for decades. It is clear that film needs more diversity and, undoubtedly, period dramas are one of the worst genres in terms of offering opportunities to actors of colour. However, rather than addressing or solving any of these issues, this inversion merely points out the gaping hole in Hollywood, begging for historical dramas that are viewed from different perspectives and set in other cultures and continents. The roaring success of films such as Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians should stand as testament to that.

Margot Robbie as Elizabeth I in Mary Queen of Scots dressed in an elaborate costume a red wig and white makeup

Still, there is a lot to like about the film. As previously mentioned, the film gives a good overview of many historic events. The costumes and sets are stunning, as is much of the performance given by Ronan and, less so, from Robbie, who did her best with a sub-par Elizabeth. But Mary Queen of Scots’ ultimate failure should have been its primary strength. It seeks to present Mary and Elizabeth through a third wave feminist lens but it just doesn’t turn out the way it seemingly was intended.

We want our films to represent our current philosophies, we want our heroes to be who we need them to be. But all too seldom does the past fit in with the wants and needs of the present. The film rides on a fantasy of doomed sisterhood that unfortunately was probably never there, nor in a pre-feminist world could we realistically expect it to be. That is not to say that there was not some affinity and mutual understanding between Mary and Elizabeth, or that they were not both strong, intelligent female rulers among a sea of powerful men.

But in truth it seems likely that they feared and respected one another in equal measure, and their allegiances lay elsewhere than within the bonds of feminine solidarity. We cannot expect or pretend that figures of history can live up to modern standards of liberalism. In order to be fair, we must accept them and examine them within the context of their own time. In shoehorning modern ideologies into an old story you lose the essence of truth that is required of good historical fiction. Mary Queen of Scots had the potential to be a great rather than just a good film. It overpromised and underdelivered. Ultimately, this failure to successfully present an updated, truly enlightened retelling of the story makes the film’s shortcomings all the more spectacular.

close up of Saoise Ronan as Mary Queen of Scots shooting a gun


What did you think of the film?

Have your say in the comments section below.


* Images are not my own. All images have been sourced from Mary Queen of Scots, 2018. Copyright: Universal Pictures and Focus Features. No copyright infringement intended



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