Mary Queen of Scots? Not Really

Mary Queen of Scots
Directed by Josie Rourke
Focus Films, 125 minutes, R (violence, brief nudity, implied homosexuality)

Audience scores for Mary Queen of Scots have been tepid and it’s easy to figure out why. The 16th century players and details of Mary Stuart’s tragic reigns are convoluted even for historians who have studied Scottish and English history. For the non-historian, it would take a mini series to clarify the key figures, motives, and intrigue–not two hours plus change. Director Josie Rourke could have gone in either of two directions: simplify the details and withstand the wrath of historians; or just call the film Mary, make it fictional, and state at the end that it was loosely based on Mary Queen of Scots (1542-1587). Alas, director Josie Rourke tried to hybridize those options.

Rourke ought not to have assumed familiarity with the events portrayed on the screen. I overheard two remarks as I was leaving. “I had never heard of Mary Queen of Scots,” said one woman. Her friend replied, “I think she’s the one they called Bloody Mary.” (Nope!)  If you want to get a sense of the challenge Rourke faced, just peruse Mary’s Wikipedia entry and tell me how much of it you understand the next morning.

Here’s a Mary Queen of Scots skinny. The Tudor family took over the English throne after the War of the Roses (1455-1487). Years later, a Tudor you’ve heard of, King Henry VIII, went through six wives in his quest for a male heir. When his first wife, Catherine, failed to bear a son, Henry sought an annulment. When the pope refused, Henry booted the Catholic Church, and England became a Protestant nation. His third wife gave him a sickly male heir, the future Edward VI, but he died in 1553 with no issue. At that point Mary I, Henry’s daughter to Catherine, took over the throne and held it from 1553-1558. She was history’s “Bloody Mary,” as many died in her attempt to reinstate Catholicism in England. Guess what happened when she died? Her Protestant sister to Henry’s second wife took the throne. Queen Elizabeth I ruled England for 50 years (1553-1603)., which didn’t sit well with those Englishmen who were Catholic.

Henry never sired a virile male, but some of his siblings did. The following questions mattered in the 16th century. How closely related to Henry were those seeking to sit on the throne? What was their gender? Were they Protestant or Catholic? Mary I and Elizabeth I were direct offspring, but this was not a time in which a woman’s right to rule was widely accepted. Had Elizabeth birthed a male child, she would have gone from queen to regent­–a caretaker­­–until her son reached a suitable age to rule. Elizabeth sidestepped this by never marrying. (Whether or not she was the “Virgin Queen” of legend is unclear.) In other words, females were pawns in a male political game.

That’s the deep background of Mary Tudor (1542-1587), except for this. Mary had a better claim to the English throne than her cousin Elizabeth, as Mary’s lineage passed through proper male bloodlines. At 14, Mary Tudor was married to the heir to the French throne. She was queen for 13 months when her husband suddenly died. She returned to Scotland (where she was queen) in August 1561, an attractive 17-year-old widow.

Mary Queen of Scots (Saoirse Ronan) is set in the crucial year of 1569. Suffice it to say that very few in Scotland wanted a kingless queen­, especially not her illegitimate half-brother, the Earl of Moray (James McArdle), who had been regent until Mary returned; or the Protestant firebrand minister John Knox (David Tennant), who added sexism to his long list of intolerances. In 1565, Mary wedded her comely first cousin Henry Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden), an error of judgment. Darnley was frivolous, vacuous, vicious, and (probably) gay. He managed to help murder Mary’s beloved Italian secretary David Rizzio (Ismael Cruz Córdova) and impregnate Mary with the future James VI of Scotland/James I of England before his many enemies engineered Darnley's death. They also forced Mary to marry the Protestant Earl of Bothwell (Martin Compston), who probably raped her. With her son in the hands of the Earl of Moray and danger everywhere, Mary fled to England and hoped that her cousin Elizabeth (Margot Robbie) would protect her. Had Mary been less proud and scheming that might have happened but in 1587, she went to the chopping block as an accused traitor.

If your head is swimming, I can assure you that this summary is more coherent than the film. The film has a few redeeming features, the biggest of which is Ms. Ronan. Unless I miss my mark badly, she will soon become the Meryl Streep of this generation. Her Scottish accent is really good; she carries herself with royal, often haughty dignity; is physically appropriate for Mary; and is luminous on the screen. Also wonderful is John Mathieson’s cinematography, even if those who’ve been to Scotland and northern England recognize that his is an often-illogical travelogue of images. David Tennant is also spot-on ominous as Knox. He even looks like the statue of Knox in Edinburgh’s St. Giles Cathedral.

Nonetheless, Rourke’s hybridization efforts call attention to the film’s ahistorical details. She calls upon a crew of National Theatre actors to flesh out the cast. Each is up to the task, but none of them would have held such important positions in the 16th century, and you will see more black actors on the screen than you’d see in a month of travel in Scotland. Rourke also attempted to make a feminist bonding film. Okay, but to do so, she reduces Mary and Elizabeth to sob sisters (semi-) bonding over male dominance. (In real life, the two never met face-to-face, and no one ever said Elizabeth was soft!) In addition, Robbie is merely a so-so actress and she’s out of her league cast against Ronan.

Let me state again that a film about rivals in love, politics, and power simply called Mary would work better–sans Max Richter’s overdone soundtrack–but what we see simply isn’t Mary Queen of Scots. Alas, I can foresee others leaving the theater saying, “I never knew there was a Mary Queen of Scots.”

Rob Weir

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