Mary Queen of Scots is a slightly anachronistic and completely ahistorical telling of the feud between Mary, Queen of Scots—the lack of proper punctuation in the title drives me nuts—and Queen Elizabeth I. Take this as even less of a history lesson than The Favourite, as Mary Queen of Scots twists itself into a narrative pretzel trying to turn the political war—and sometimes actual war—between Mary and Elizabeth into a story about powerful women pushed around by the conniving, craven men around them, and how were it not but for these men, these two women would have gotten along fine, ruled peaceably together, and no one’s head ever would have been cut off. Uh…sure. I’m working hard not to hold this film’s ahistorical narrative against it because it isn’t interested in a story about religious reformation (hello, the major problem was Protestants vs. Catholics), so I will just say—Mary Stuart is a bad subject for this story.
But that doesn’t mean Mary Queen of Scots is without merit. It is a very fine-looking film, being the feature film debut of Josie Rourke, artistic director of London’s Donmar Warehouse theater. The work of cinematographer John Mathieson is gorgeous, with many misty Scottish vistas. And Alexandra Byrne produces some lovely, slightly anachronistic gowns that communicate so much about the queens who don them, from uptight, barren Elizabeth, whose gowns come in rich earthen shades and often sport flowers, her clothes blooming as her body won’t, to Mary and her vaguely punk rock frocks with their darker, more austere colors, reflecting her darker, more austere land. This is a GREAT film to look at, bar none.
It’s the mechanics of the story that get in the way. The script comes from House of Cards creator Beau Willimon, who works mightily to turn Mary’s story into a political thriller. It was certainly a time of political strife, with the Reformation still cementing its hold in the British Isles, and Elizabeth I’s and Mary’s reigns challenged by those who would see anyone other than a woman on the throne. There was much politicking, and a lot of literal stabbings, and this story SHOULD be ripe for the political thriller treatment. The problem, then, is the specific way in which Willimon goes about laying out the story. Because at the end of the day, this is a story about a woman whose greatest accomplishment is to marry and have a child, not the most modern story for a woman-in-charge.
Mary Queen of Scots TRIES to be progressive, and in some ways it succeeds. Take, for instance, the colorblind casting: Gemma Chan plays Elizabeth’s courtier, Bess of Hardwick, and Adrian Lester plays English diplomat Lord Randolph. The result is a modern-looking cast that is no less effective in telling an antique story. But in other areas the attempt at progressivism fails. David Rizzio (Ismael Cruz Cordova), Mary’s favorite who probably was LGBTQ, is portrayed as non-binary and bisexual, which is great until he is violently murdered in front of Mary (which actually happened). This choice, made in good faith and with the best of intentions, still results in a queer character becoming a prop to a straight character’s pain, and also subjects us to more queer trauma porn. It reminds me of The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina and the character of Prudence, and how casting a woman of color in that role puts an undoubtedly unintentional but nonetheless negative spin on that character. Storytellers have to consider how casting decisions affect their stories, which is not to say don’t cast diverse people in these roles, but to think better of the roles themselves.
But Ronan and Robbie are terrific, and their one scene together—totally didn’t happen, but whatever—is electric. Both give great performances, and show how the strict patriarchy of their times wears them down: Elizabeth by becoming embittered, and Mary by growing more stubborn and entrenched in her terrible decision making. (Another thing the film can’t quite escape is Mary’s historically epic and awful life choices.) Mary Stuart isn’t the best subject for this kind of film because no matter how hard you try, you’re still telling a tale about a woman whose great accomplishment is producing an heir. And by pushing everyone’s religious motivations into the backseat, we’re left with a motivational black hole which makes a number of characters act very oddly (Mary’s Protestant half-brother, Lord Moray, aka Lord Manbun, makes almost no sense). As with Robin Hood, trying to update a medieval story for modern times doesn’t quite work. But at least Mary Queen of Scots is watchable.