Josie Rourke’s latest film portrays the tumultuous reign of Scotland’s martyr queen with lashings of betrayal, sectarianism and misogyny with stellar performances from Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie portraying the two queens trapped within gilded cages, prevented from exercising their powers by the men who “counsel” them.
The film opens with the return of teenage Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan) to Scotland after her upbringing in France and becoming a widow to King Francis II. Upon her return she finds herself a stranger in her own kingdom with a hostile court headed up by her illegitimate half-brother, the infamous Regent Moray.
The scenery within the film is breathtaking, with vast landscapes such as Glencoe highlighting the striking beauty Scotland has to offer. Coupled with Outlaw King and Outlander, Scotland’s rich history finally seems to be receiving the film and television attention it deserves, with enough political betrayal in our history to rival Game of Thrones.
The topic of Mary’s marriage is one of the key plot developments within the film: Mary is required to procure heirs for Scotland and also England, as Elizabeth I is without issue. Step forth the dashing Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden) who wins Mary’s heart. However, the honeymoon period finds itself cut short and Darnley’s cavalier attitudes and indulgences frustrates relations with his new wife. This coupled with Darnley’s desire to assert himself as a patriarchal husband over Mary further inflicts tension, who resents his attempts to undermine her rule as sovereign. The belittlement of Mary is a theme that runs throughout the film; from religious zealots such as John Knox (David Tennant) to her own courtiers repeatedly patronising her as a result of her gender . One of the most striking scenes is the murder of David Rizzio, Mary’s confidante, by the Scottish lords headed by Lord Darnley. In this scene the lords enter Mary’s private chambers, restrain her, and butcher Rizzio in front of her eyes. The visual intensity of the scene adds to the brutality of the act, with a focus on Mary cradling Rizzio in a pieta fashion covered in the blood of her close friend; demonstrating the little control she has over the events at play within her own kingdom.
In England, the Virgin Queen fares little better. Elizabeth (Margot Robbie) is seen as a lonely figure, without a husband or issue. She cannot marry her love, Robert Dudley, out of fear of upsetting the royal court or compromising her position as sovereign. This is contrasted with Mary, whose beauty and relative freedom make Elizabeth envious of her Scottish cousin. Yet despite their differences, the driving force of misogyny amongst courtiers seems to unite the two in their correspondence.
A strength of the film is the ability to capture the intimacy in the day-to-day life of the two queens; the labour scenes of Mary giving birth to the future James VI & I are interwoven with Elizabeth’s daydreams of her own pregnancy before sinking back to the realisation that she will not have children. However, Mary has far from a normal happy family; her husband is estranged from her following the murder of Rizzio and soon Darnley too is murdered. Amidst revolt by her nobles, Mary flees Scotland, leaving behind her infant son, and travels to England to seek aid. Elizabeth cannot offer support; her protestant lords would not approve support for a Catholic queen.
Elizabeth and Mary’s fictional meeting (there is no recorded meeting of the two despite years of correspondence) is one of the best scenes in the film. Robbie gives a moving performance of a woman forced to live the serene life of a royal, repressing her emotions in order to maintain the appearance of dignified grace. Ronan delivers an equally emotional response; captivating the frustration and hopelessness of Mary as a deposed queen. For Mary, her free will suffered the consequences and the remainder of her life is spent as a prisoner, until her execution at the order of Elizabeth.
Overall, the film highlights the affinity between Scotland and England, its shared history within the Machiavellian power struggle of royal succession. It also serves to expose the long and bloodied history of sectarianism within Scotland, going back to the roots of current contentions. Above all it is a film that demonstrates that two of the most well-known female monarchs in Britain were not the stalwarts of history that could rule over land and lord as they pleased but were prisoners within the political systems of a patriarchal society. For Mary, her attempts to assert her sovereignty over her lords came at the cost of her throne. Elizabeth chartered a different path, choosing to adhere to her lords but at the loss of her own individualism. “Uneasy lies the head that bears the Crown” is the Shakespearean maxim, and it seems evident that for these two monarchs, they too have paid the price.