The first feature from prestigious theatrical figure Josie Rourke is a flawed attempt to reframe the short life of Mary Stuart as a proto-feminist icon of sorts.
The doomed Mary (spoiler alert – 1542 – 1587) has appeared in historical dramas and biopics before, notably with Vanessa Redgrave in a movie of the same title in 1971. But here she’s portrayed as particularly free-thinking and fearless by a rather dazzling Saoirse Ronan, leaving us wondering if the real Mary was ever that striking – or clean.
Based on Dr. John Guy’s Queen Of Scots: The True Life Of Mary Stuart, this puts forward the notion that Mary and her cousin Queen Elizabeth I did actually meet briefly, a controversial idea that nonetheless forms the basis of a critical scene here. It’s also worth noting that Margot Robbie’s portrait of Elizabeth is in stark contrast to the similarly-Aussie Cate Blanchett’s take in that Elizabeth double-header: there Liz was strong, noble and virtuous, while here she’s vain, cruel, neurotic and, eventually, ruined.
Opening with a flash-forward to what we well know is coming – Mary defiantly walking to her execution, as a bunch of men watch – we then cut back to see the young and Catholic Mary returning from France to Scotland after the death of her husband. She immediately becomes a thorn in her Protestant cousin’s side, although much of the supposed danger she poses to Elizabeth’s rule is trumped up by the men around her (again). Saoirse’s Mary is tough, smart and unafraid right from the get-go, while Margot’s Elizabeth is shown as spoilt and infantalised, and only aware of it all when it’s too late.
Mary boldly stands up to John Knox (David Tennant), a formidable cleric who then preaches fire and brimstone about the horror of a Catholic running the country, and goes in for plenty of not-quite-old-school misogyny with terms like “scourge”, “polecat” and “whore”. Elizabeth tries to stop her making a claim for the throne by offering Mary the chance to marry an English citizen, Robert Dudley (Joe Alwyn), who she (Liz) actually adores, but she has more success with Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden). He seems perfect at first, until she actually marries him – and bitterly regrets it.
When Mary becomes pregnant, enraging the envious and heirless Elizabeth, a rumour begins that Darnley isn’t the father, as another group of scheming men (there are so many here!) start turning against Mary behind the scenes and blackmailing the spineless Darnley (Lowden plays weak, boozy and guilt-ridden very well). Soon Mary is being forced to marry again, threatened at every side, forced to essentially abdicate and, finally, having her big scene with Elizabeth.
Handsome-looking if a little narratively wobbly, director Rourke seems most interested in her actors’ performances. The cast does try hard, with Guy Pearce in subtle form as Elizabeth’s advisor William Cecil, Ian Hart nasty as the manipulative Lord Maitland and Tennant somewhat shocking as what would now be called a hate preacher. But this is mostly about Ronan and Robbie, who were apparently kept apart during filming, so that their unfamiliarity with each other would work to their advantage at the end.
But is it a feminist epic? Well, Mary talks to her giggly gentlewomen about how men must both love and respect them, is tolerant of all races (and sexual persuasions), isn’t scared of the sexism that surrounds her and even thinks that people should be allowed to worship however and whatever they like (and imagine that!). Whether or not she actually spoke like that is debatable, and the fact she is basically killed for these views sends a bit of a grim message for young women 400+ years later.
But between Knox, Maitland, Darnley and any number of other manipulative figures around either queen, it does drive home the observation that toxic masculinity is certainly not a modern phenomenon.
Mary Queen of Scots (MA) is in cinemas from January 17