Mary Queen of Scots is an intimate—albeit factually questionable—insight into the lives and relationship between two prominent monarchs of the 16th Century: Mary Stuart Queen of Scotland, played by the formidable Saoirse Ronan alongside the pitch-perfect Margot Robbie who embodies Queen Elizabeth I of England.
This film sits nicely alongside a sting of recent films—including The Favourite and Colette—rewriting history from the previously silenced perspective of prominent women.
The period in which their respective rules coincidence marked an extraordinary time in the history of the world: the domination of two women in a time of kings.
Following the death of her first husband, Mary, the former queen of France, returns to Scotland to claim her royal birthright. Her return causes unease; firstly, to the men who had ruled in her absence, but most pronounced is the fear she strikes into her “sister” Elizabeth. As the two nations fall under the rule of England, Mary’s assertion brings potential disruption to Elizabeth’s, and by extension England’s, sovereignty.
But fear is not the only, nor the most compelling dynamic between the two Queens. Rather, it is their almost innate affection and interest towards one another; they are each other’s enemy, friend, sister, idol and reflection. Observing the other, they blindly try to discover how to be a woman in a position of authority. Both Queens have to make great sacrifices and navigate the prejudices and powerplays of their own councilmen—which unfortunately doesn’t seem like an unfamiliar circumstance presently.
The two women—particularly the fierce Mary—realise that ambition will be their downfall, and to keep their respective thrones they must deny themselves all hope of happiness and the privilege afforded to former kings.
According to historical documentation, the two Queens never actually met. One of the richest and visually beautiful scenes imagines such an encounter in a village laundry room, adorned with a maze of white cloth strung like streamers throughout the room. Mary and Elizabeth search for each other amongst the chaos of linen while delivering some of the most powerful lines that get to the heart of their situations—articulating the true tragedy of their supposedly honoured lives.
In her directorial film debut, Josie Rourke brings much of her vast and accomplished theatre background to the screen. The various gowns and hair styles sported by the Queens are as bold and lustrous and the women who wear them. It is no surprise that Alexandra Byrne is up for a Satellite Award for Best Costume Design.
Indeed, the film feels like it was crafted in many ways to be the perfect candidate for Awards season. Along with a few pinches of zeitgeist anxieties, the casting of (arguably) the two most successful actresses of our time, and the film’s epic (and scarily perfect) production, it does carry that faint waft of Hollywood commercialism. At times, the characters feel like caricatures, the plot seems to play to its audience’s base desires rather than carrying humanity, and scenes convey a sense of elation without substance.
But despite this, Mary Queen of Scots is a story that undoubtably needed to be told and the film does an admirable job of telling it. Moreover, it is a visual spectacle that can only be fully realised in a immersive environment of a cinema, making it well worth a night out at the movies.
Mary Queen of Scots is out in selected Perth Cinemas January 17.