Saoirse (it’s Sur-sha) Ronan and Margot Robbie give fine performances as Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I respectively in a movie named for the former.
In fact, their appearance probably goes a short way to explaining why the film was made? It seems a long shot that producers sitting around an LA lunch table thought it a good idea to make a period piece, dominated by Scotland (“this wretched place” as one of Mary’s attendants tells her) and the land between it and the Elizabethan court?
There is little doubt this is a film by women (Josie Rourke directs) about women and displays to a new generation of moviegoers just what bastards or weaklings most men are and that they alone are the reason the world is in its current mess. Guess what? They’re right! But I have an inkling that it’s human beings, sure mostly dominated by male decision makers, that have brought us to where we are.
In Mary Queen of Scots (2018), Mary (Ronan) returns to Scotland from France where she has been left a widow by the death of her French royal husband. She assumes the crown that is rightly hers from her caretaker, half-brother, the Earl of Morland (James McArdle). Mary stands up to her counsel, including the firebrand preacher John Knox (David Tennant), who distrusts the Catholic Queen ruling by way of Rome instead of whatever city was Scotland’s seat of power.
Mary’s main ambition is to see her House of Stuart rule England and Scotland but wants a neat succession rather than violent conquest to achieve this. Queen Elizabeth (Margot Robbie) refuses to marry and has no heir. As Henry VIII’s daughter and knowing the fate of her own mother, Anne Boleyn, there seem psychological undertones here as to why she may not want to bring a male child into the world.
Mary’s idea is for her to be next in line to the English throne. The spectre of Catholicism weighs heavily into this possible scenario. Protestants rule England and it doesn’t sit well with Elizabeth’s advisers led by William Cecil (Guy Pearce).
There’s a lot of toing-and-froing over a couple of hours of celluloid and both leads are brilliant visually and in performance. But their characters don’t have much luck. Elizabeth sends her favourite companion Robert Dudley (Joe Alwyn) to marry Mary to keep her in line but his reluctant betrothal offer is refused. Instead, Mary chooses the cowardly rake Henry Darnley (Jack Lowden) who turns out to be “a sodomite” (his father’s words, not mine). In a fit of violence she cranks up Darnley enough to get a heterosexual exchange between the two of them, producing James I.
Elizabeth hasn’t had much more luck than Mary. She nearly dies from smallpox and her face is ravaged by scars. A lot of makeup is required and lucky she was Queen or she would have been called Cakeface’ behind her back.
James’s birth gives Mary leverage and she requests her “sister” (actually cousin) Elizabeth to be Godmother to the boy, to further cement the succession plan. When Elizabeth agrees the counsels on both sides of the border are in uproar. English crown closer to papacy and Scottish crown no longer needing Darnley, whose father the Earl of Lennox (Brendan Coyle) is quite put out.
After being crossed by Moray, Lennox and other ratbags, Mary is spirited to England and kept in safety by Elizabeth. The two meet (it never happened) and one is led to believe that Elizabeth isn’t happy with Mary’s over confidence and mistrusts her from here. It is interesting that one reviewer, David Stratton, was very disappointed with this fabricated confrontation and another, Richard Roeper of the Chicago Sun-Times, thought this okay because it’s drama not documentary. I’m with Stratton.
While being kept safe, plotters abound and – probably correctly – Mary is eventually charged with treason and executed. Elizabeth wants nothing to do with the decision but – probably correctly – is instrumental in this occurrence.
There were some interesting aspects to Mary Queen of Scots. The fine performances by the leads; the wind-swept and bleak Scots landscapes and locations; the fact that casting was colour blind with black actors playing key roles, especially Adrian Lester as English Ambassador Lord Randolph.
I suppose Jeff Chandler once played an American Indian and there have been even worse examples of white actors and actresses (are we allowed to say that?) playing people of other cultures. What’s wrong with a black actor playing a 16th century English lord? Well that’s the director’s argument.