You know what they say: heavy is the head that wears the crown. For Mary, the Queen of Scotland (Saoirse Ronan), and Elizabeth I, the Queen of England and Ireland (Margot Robbie), not only is the crown a heavy burden but trying to be heard as a woman in a court full of men is near impossible, monarch or not. The film opens with Mary entering a room, walking into a sea of men; setting the Queen firmly in a man’s world. It begins where the film later ends – 1587. For anyone who knows the history of this time, we all know how it ends, but for those who do not, I won’t spoil it for you. This is a very ‘history’ heavy film, full of petty politics (be aware though, history, in film, is laden with creative licence); if you let your mind wander for a moment, you might miss a vital piece of information.
The film then works back to where the story all began, a recently widowed Mary returning to her home country, Scotland, from France, at the age of eighteen; automatically having to assert herself as a leader among the men in her council. Mary constantly has to prove herself as the monarch that Scotland deserves, whilst also trying to ensure that her line, the Stuarts, will rule England and take the crown from the Tudors. To Elizabeth, the Tudor and Virgin Queen, Mary is everything she is not: beautiful, young, fertile. Elizabeth refers to herself as a man, feeling more like the men who counsel her than her Queen cousin, Mary; Mary of course understanding more than anyone else the battle that they as women must fight every day to prove themselves as worthy.
I cannot claim to know enough about this time in history to say if Elizabeth and Mary were as sympathetic to each other’s plights as the movie claims they were, but whether or not it is true, the fragile bond that is shared between them is a surprisingly poignant element of the story. Elizabeth appears defeated and weary, so bogged down by patriarchy and ruling a country, while attempting to defend her crown from the Stuart, Catholic line. Meanwhile, Mary is feisty, brazen, and headstrong, if a little naïve. Refusing to marry the man that Elizabeth sends over to Mary in an attempt to unite their families, and control the young widower, Mary instead marries someone of her own choosing, Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden). However, this is a mistake that she realises too late. Darnley is a misogynist and power hungry. Their sex scene is vicious and very uncomfortable to watch; both attempt to take from the other what they want, Darnley wants the crown, while Mary wants an heir. In a culmination of just how vicious and disgusting Darnley is, the audience is forced to witness a disturbing gang murder of one of Mary’s close friends, agreed to by her own husband. Some of the issues raised in this film highlight a clear feminist stamp that allows Mary Queen of Scots to resonate with society today. The story may be nearly five hundred years old, but there are some things that will always be current: misogyny and patriarchy, women battling to prove their worth as leaders, and women’s bodies. In an interview with The Irish Times, director Josie Rourke said that women’s bodies, their sexual pleasure, and their periods were an important, yet mundane aspect of life that she wanted included in her film. This is something so entrenched in women’s lives, yet rarely addressed in Hollywood movies, and for highlighting them I applaud Rourke.
The performances from both Ronan and Robbie were stunning; simple and raw. There was nothing overdone about their acting, which can so easily be done in a period piece. Saoirse Ronan as Mary is one of the best roles I’ve seen her in, that and Brooklyn; her Scottish accent is perfect, and she captures that mix of innocence and strength just right (Yes, I am one of those people who actually like Saoirse Ronan and believe her Irish accent is authentic). Margot Robbie creates a very sympathetic character, showing a vulnerability that is powerful in its simplicity; and she looks almost unrecognisable thanks to the work of the make-up department. That is what was so great about this film, not only was the acting from the leading women brilliant, as was the supporting cast, which included names like David Tennant and Guy Pearse; but the hair, makeup and costume department did impressive work on this picture. Not surprisingly ‘Mary Queen of Scots’ has been Oscar-nominated for the above categories, and it thoroughly deserves to win. While it comes up against another period film, ‘The Favourite’ in the category of costume design, personally ‘Mary Queen of Scots’ surpasses it both in the costume department and everything else.
The Scottish landscape is like a character itself in this film, shots of Glencoe’s craggy and haunting landscape is breathtaking, and characters are purposely placed in a way that allows the camera to capture all that the Scottish Highlands has to offer in the way of scenery.
‘Mary Queen of Scots’ is a surprisingly relevant piece of film in some of the issues it raises throughout. It is full of betrayal, violence, deception; yet it also highlights the terrible loneliness of being a monarch.
Like the powerful women in the film, it ends with a powerful impact; without ruining the act that takes place at the ending, it finishes with a breath and plunges into darkness and silence. It creates a solemn atmosphere, forcing silence on the audience as they leave; just as the men in Mary’s and Elizabeth’s court tried to silence them.
By Shauna Fox – Film Writer