Our swords are not just for show.
I know nothing of Scottish history. While this means I can’t attest to the veracity of Mary Queen of Scots, however, it doesn’t stop me from wondering about its lukewarm reception. What’s interesting is how the film as adapted by Beau Willimon from John Guy‘s novel Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart cares little about history at all. Besides explaining the facts surrounding Mary’s heir (James I) acquiring the crown of England without bloodshed (and consequently continuing a lineage that would eventually include the subject of the other more raucous period piece from 2018, The Favourite), the Donmar Warehouse’s artistic director Josie Rourke‘s debut feature deals with power, feminism, and a patriarchy that only cares about the former if it arrives without the latter.
In this case I think we should do well to push aside historical inaccuracies and treat the message lying beneath as paramount—one involving progressive notions of sexuality, familiar gendered hypocrisy, and the ever-present stir of enmity towards one’s opponents as a means of brainwashing the less educated into fighting against their own best interests. Those are sentiments that can’t help feel prescient as far as what we face today with old men saying they fear the “impulsive emotions” of women despite the truth revealing their objective inferiority in comparison to those women has led them to have no recourse but leaning on the rampant misogyny of voters. It’s easy to hear screams of “harlot” by David Tennant‘s John Knox in the indignant voice of any GOP leader.
What we’re watching isn’t therefore a war between cousins and queens like the trailers otherwise infer. Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland (Saoirse Ronan) and Elizabeth I, Queen of England (Margot Robbie) are obviously of two sides with their claims upon the more prominent throne, but there’s a respect in kinship and the mutual understanding of their duties towards country that keeps them from going to battle. They conduct themselves as though chess partners, moving pieces on the board in order to appease so that they may secure an advantage. Elizabeth wants Mary to wed someone in her pocket while Mary wishes to be named the “Virgin Queen’s” heir. It’s an astute game with calculated maneuvers meant to render the rules of ownership men enacted upon their gender ineffective.
And it of course galls those men. The one who has Elizabeth’s ear (Guy Pearce‘s William Cecil) is okay with it because he is heard, admired, and valued. Does he still wish she would wed and have a child in the hopes an intelligent man unbothered by the frivolities of femininity could calm down a patriarchal citizenry desperate for masculine security? You’re damn right he does. So her decision to treat the crown as more important than what others believe her station should allow—whether given the crown by God or not—is what matters. Watching her stand-up to those who treat her as a prize more than their sovereign is the success won by Elizabeth’s brief but potent screen time here. Her strength is acknowledging their greed.
The same can be said of the film’s lead. Mary returns to Scotland after the death of her French husband because it is her birthright to rule. Whether or not her letters to Elizabeth about governing as sisters is in earnest (she quickly reveals herself to have the ambition to kill her cousin if she ever agreed to make her heir), Mary respects her position because it is the position she wishes to eventually hold. She conversely sees her half-brother James’ (James McArdle) generosity as the claim to power it is and her counsel Lord Maitland (Ian Hart) as a duplicitous man willing to do anything he can to dethrone both women simultaneously. Every success she gains to prove her worth thus becomes a loss for male superiority.
The war then is between men and women. It’s the former’s amorality and treachery against the very dignified set of standards they delude themselves into believing they protect. The film very clearly shows how emotionally compromised men will get when their importance is tested and ensures we witness how their greed can consume even those who said they would never falter (see Martin Compston‘s Lord Bothwell). Men like Henry Darnley (Jack Lowden) reveal the lengths they’ll go to achieve self-preservation over happiness all while watching the benevolent forgiveness and impeccable cognizance towards true blame Mary shows those “guilty” of the same transgressions (see Ismael Cruz Cordova‘s Rizzio). Every step of the way exposes the fallaciousness of political thought that’s perpetually kept those with true power down.
Rourke eschewing the usual pomp and circumstance for a more casual yet no less stunning visual aesthetic via wardrobe and locale only adds another layer to the gender comparison. Here’s a woman stripping things down to the subject matter’s complex politics wherein the women in her film use a baby as a pawn when men have forever depicted the same era with a need to dress in frills and curls before minimizing queens as maternal figures giving their men the heart necessary for their difficult matters of war. Everything about Mary Queen of Scots therefore seeks to spotlight the false rhetoric of patriarchal notions by delivering a dialogue-heavy account of espionage and regality with the “male” victors shown as the irredeemable villains acting on prejudice they are.
I for one found this avenue enthralling. Maybe it’s because I knew nothing of what went on that I could invest in the constant deception by rage-fueled men opposite the determined poise of their Queen without pedantically noting every historical error along the way. Regardless, Ronan is fantastic as Mary with a grace as steely as her bite. It’s a role that epitomizes the extra lengths women must go for a fraction of the respect men earn on principle—one that also shines a light on the weakness of men predicated on their belief that they are always in control. Ronan does well to show that she isn’t unaffected by what happens despite her composure, every setback met with a look of planning her way out.
Even so, it’s Robbie’s complex and layered performance that stands out. We don’t see her often and usually only in response to what Mary has done or what’s being done to Mary, but she possesses a vulnerability that truly marks what her job entails. In many instances Mary is the indignant king ready to burn every bridge to achieve her goal, sacrificing everyone at her side along with herself. By contrast, Robbie’s Elizabeth is forever willing to sacrifice herself so those by her side can live. She’s fighting against suppressed desires and putting her kingdom first. Their disparate lives infer upon their unique paths forward, but the pain in Elizabeth’s eyes when exemplifying her strength cannot be diminished. Mary seeks reward while Elizabeth bears the cost despite it.
 (l-r) Ian Hart stars as Lord Maitland, Jack Lowden as Lord Darnley, Saoirse Ronan as Mary Stuart and James McArdle as Earl of Moray in MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS, a Focus Features release. Credit: Liam Daniel / Focus Features
 Margot Robbie stars as Elizabeth I and Joe Alwyn as Robert Dudley in MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS, a Focus Features release. Credit: Liam Daniel / Focus Features
 (l-r.) Ismael Cruz Cordova stars as Rizzio, Maria Dragus as Mary Fleming, Izuka Hoyle as Mary Seton and Saoirse Ronan as Mary Stuart in MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS, a Focus Features release. Credit: Liam Daniel / Focus Features