‘Mary Queen of Scots’ is sexy, spir­ited


>> Is there room for two queens on a sin­gle is­land? In a sin­gle movie? The an­swers, ac­cord­ing to Mary Queen of Scots, are “not quite” and “al­most”. The mon­archs in ques­tion are Mary, played by Saoirse Ro­nan, and her cousin El­iz­a­beth I, played by Mar­got Rob­bie. The his­tory books cast them as bit­ter ri­vals, but the film imag­ines them as long-dis­tance fren­e­mies.

Flash­ing back from the mo­ment of Mary’s ex­e­cu­tion in 1587 to her ar­rival on a Scot­tish beach more than a quar­ter-cen­tury ear­lier, the direc­tor, Josie Rourke, and the screen­writer, Beau Wil­limon ( House of Cards), con­jure par­al­lel courts in which the mon­archs are some­times pawns of en­trenched male power. Mary, al­ready a widow and still in her teens, alights from France as an avatar of world­li­ness and moder­nity in a rugged, clan­nish coun­try. Her dresses bring a splash of bright colour into the dark, brood­ing at­mos­phere, much as her tem­per­a­ment flavours the dreary af­fairs of state with wit and charisma.

Mean­while, in Eng­land, El­iz­a­beth, a vir­gin for whom a po­lit­i­cally suit­able hus­band can’t be found, dwells in a prison of pageantry and high pomp. Her clothes, hair and makeup are more lav­ish than Mary’s — El­iz­a­beth’s king­dom is an ex­pand­ing em­pire — and her free­dom of ac­tion more se­verely con­strained. The two rulers, both fairly young when the story be­gins, are joined by blood and sep­a­rated by re­li­gion. El­iz­a­beth, daugh­ter of Henry VIII, is Protes­tant while her cousin, once mar­ried to the King of France, is Catholic.

This cre­ates a set of con­flicts be­tween them and am­ple op­por­tu­ni­ties for treach­ery among their sub­jects. Each queen is, to some de­gree, a pawn, ma­nip­u­lated by op­por­tunis­tic courtiers and politi­cians who pro­claim loy­alty to the sov­er­eigns they seek to un­der­mine. No man is en­tirely trust­wor­thy. Os­ten­si­bly loyal am­bas­sadors pur­sue their own agen­das. Suit­ors, lovers and min­is­ters of state prove less than re­li­able.

Even Mary’s beloved older brother, James (James McAr­dle), is ca­pa­ble of be­trayal. She doesn’t al­ways re­alise how much dan­ger she is in. El­iz­a­beth, for her part, en­joys more se­cu­rity, but at the price of her hap­pi­ness and au­ton­omy. As Mary thrives and tests the lim­its of her in­de­pen­dence, sur­rounded by af­fec­tion­ate ladies in wait­ing, El­iz­a­beth be­comes in­creas­ingly brit­tle and re­mote, alien­ated from her own af­fec­tions and en­cased in elab­o­rate cos­tumes.

The nar­row ques­tion that drives the plot has to do with the co­ex­is­tence of two coun­tries with over­lap­ping royal lines. An heir to Mary’s throne might also claim El­iz­a­beth’s, and Mary her­self is seen as a threat to her cousin’s po­si­tion. His­tory has gen­er­ally treated Mary as a vil­lain, and Mary Queen of Scots seeks both to re­vise this judge­ment and to ex­am­ine its sources in misog­yny, na­tion­al­ism and big­otry. Its case in her de­fence is some­what per­sua­sive and en­joy­ably anachro­nis­tic.

At times, Mary’s dec­la­ra­tions of tol­er­ance — for for­eign­ers, sex­ual non­con­formists and free­thinkers — sound a bit too closely tai­lored to 21st-cen­tury sen­si­bil­i­ties, but the over­all pic­ture of a frac­tious and di­verse 16th-cen­tury Bri­tain also serves as a corrective to tidy, tra­di­tional views of the past.

There is a wel­come wild­ness to some of Rourke and Wil­limon’s re­vi­sion­ism. Stu­dents of Scot­tish his­tory may be sur­prised to learn that the fate of the na­tion was partly de­cided by an act of cun­nilin­gus. In most other ways, the man who per­forms it, Mary’s fu­ture hus­band, Lord Darn­ley (Jack Low­den), dis­ap­points her, but there is en­light­en­ment as well as plea­sure to be found in the full and com­pli­cated sex­u­al­ity of the film’s char­ac­ters, in­clud­ing David Rizzio (Is­mael Cruz Cor­dova), a mu­si­cian who is part of Mary’s in­ner cir­cle.

Not that sex can be sep­a­rated from pol­i­tics. As Mary’s am­bi­tions be­come more ap­par­ent, John Knox (David Ten­nant), a pow­er­ful Protes­tant preacher, ex­co­ri­ates her from the pulpit in lan­guage that links her power with sex­ual wan­ton­ness. Mary’s body, like El­iz­a­beth’s, is a sym­bol and ves­sel of the na­tion’s in­tegrity, and there­fore it isn’t en­tirely hers. The tragic im­pli­ca­tions of that fact, and of her re­bel­lion against it, are what hold Mary Queen of Scots to­gether, giv­ing it a political sharp­ness that goes be­yond the usual cos­tume-drama.

That co­her­ence, and the con­trast be­tween Rob­bie’s spooky, man­nered per­for­mance and Ro­nan’s spir­ited open­ness, make the movie con­sis­tently in­ter­est­ing even if it’s not al­ways con­vinc­ing. Part of the prob­lem is that the script’s ideas about gen­der and power can seem sim­ple and schematic, rest­ing on no­tions of women’s nat­u­ral sol­i­dar­ity and com­pas­sion that Euro­pean his­tory doesn’t quite sup­port.

The sup­po­si­tion seems to be that the two queens would have been nat­u­ral al­lies — and Eng­land and Scot­land might have set­tled their dif­fer­ences — if it weren’t for all the med­dle­some men in their dou­blets and beards.

At the same time, in or­der to re­ha­bil­i­tate Mary, the film­mak­ers are driven to hu­mil­i­ate El­iz­a­beth, who is a neu­rotic, in­de­ci­sive in­tro­vert in con­trast to her vi­va­cious, out­go­ing cousin. The pos­si­bil­ity that El­iz­a­beth could have been a shrewd and ruth­less political player in her own right — a Machi­avel­lian prince rather than a cursed fairy tale princess — is ruled out.

Still, I ad­mire the au­dac­ity and in­tel­li­gence of the per­form­ers and the film­mak­ers in pur­su­ing a vig­or­ous and provoca­tive his­tor­i­cal fic­tion, even one that doesn’t en­tirely work.

GRACEFULLY DONE: From left, Grace Molony as Dorothy Stafford, Mar­got Rob­bie as Queen El­iz­a­beth I and Ge­or­gia Bur­nell as Kate Carey in a scene from ‘Mary Queen of Scots’.

DEL­I­CATE POISE: Saoirse Ro­nan as Mary Stu­art in a scene from ‘Mary Queen of Scots’.

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