Film critic Scott Wilson takes a look at the story of Mary Queen of Scots.
Mary Queen of Scots – ★★★☆☆
When more often than not it is the case a new film is based on something, how important is faithfulness to its source?
It isn’t a new debate, but the prominence of series like Harry Potter on the mainstream conscience has brought it to the fore. Both Philosopher’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets stuck closely to their literary versions, before deviating wildly with Prisoner of Azkaban. For many, Azkaban is the best of the eight films, while for many others, the opposite is true. In focusing on telling the best story possible in this medium, director Alfonso Cuarón chose to prioritise what worked on screen over sticking to what was on the page.
It seems Josie Rourke has chosen to do the same with Mary Queen of Scots, particularly regarding a well-publicised scene in which Saoirse Ronan’s Mary meets Margot Robbie’s Queen Elizabeth I, a meeting which never happened in real life. While it must be tempting as a director to put these two A-listers together on screen, does the truth take precedence?
As cinema-goers, we can only engage with what is in front of us. To nit-pick, Mary would not have had a Scottish accent, yet here Ronan does her best north of the border lilt. Becoming bogged down by facts may get in the way of what the art is doing.
Rourke isn’t all that interested in telling the story of Mary Queen of Scots. Her take is modern, empowering, knowing. But it is all the better for it.
And Mary Queen of Scots is doing plenty. Its existence as a film in wide-release with a female director and two female leads is not separate from its narrative focus. Mary, arriving on Scottish shores, is counselled by men, including her half-brother James Stewart, the Earl of Moray. Among those present at the first meeting is John Knox, David Tennant unnoticeable behind a cloak of hair. Incensed by a Catholic claiming the throne, he denounces both Mary’s faith and her womanhood, setting out to turn the land against her.
Elizabeth, too, has men in her ear. Gender is toyed with as she suggests she has become a man because of her approach to royal duties, and David Rizzio, a close friend of Mary’s, is treated as if one of her sisters, which he is elated by. Even by those who see her as the rightful monarch, Mary is undermined and betrayed by men she puts her trust in.
More than that, the film emphasises the power of gossip and whispers. Mary is accompanied by attendants, referred to by her as her gentlewomen. When they are dismissed from her private chambers, they stand outside and listen, sometimes with delight, sometimes with horror. These characters who could easily be seen as subservient and passive actually contain more knowledge and wit than many of those who claim to do so.
But they also reflect what we know about the film industry’s dealings with abusive men, in which everyone knew about Harvey Weinstein before everyone knew about him. Women stuck together and spread information among themselves to protect those who could have been taken in by a dangerous man, and in Mary Queen of Scots, the listening women are witnesses to the terribleness of a gender that won’t respect or acknowledge the equality of another.
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Which might not be the message a historical drama is expected to peddle. Times were different, some might say. But the film’s strengths lie in the dynamics which separate its characters, across lines of gender, faith, and even geography.
Watching a film begin with a preamble in which tensions between Catholics and Protestants are explained takes on a specific kind of tension in certain parts of Scotland, not unlike the “No More Catholics” scene from T2 Trainspotting. Mary preaches a heaven in which followers of both faiths are welcome, but the division across the two countries is enough for betrayal in her court and uprisings in her country. Knox’s preaching targets the Queen of Scots directly but also her faith as well, unable to separate the two and finding offence in both.
What connects Mary and Elizabeth, even apart, even as foes, is a sense of isolation. Both choose to rule in different ways, but both seem to have more faith in the other than anyone around them. They understand each other, and in that is the crux of the film.
Rourke isn’t all that interested in telling the story of Mary Queen of Scots. Her take is modern, empowering, knowing. But it is all the better for it. If it is the facts you’re after, watch a documentary, read a book, go to Wikipedia. This is a patient character study and not a high-octane historical romp ala Outlaw King. With it, Rourke looks back to look forward.
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