Mary Queen of Scots
Directed by Josie Rourke
Written by Beau Willimon
Starring Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie
Classification 14A; 124 minutes
In the third act of Mary Queen of Scots, the forces plotting against the Scottish Queen are circling closer, so she flees Edinburgh for safety. Assembling her retinue in the frigid courtyard of Holyrood Palace, she takes leave of her infant son who cries out piteously, “Mama, mama!” as she mounts her horse. So far, Mary has revealed herself as courageous and tolerant; now it turns out she is an admirably attentive mother to boot.
It’s a silly scene: Sixteenth-century nobles did not nurse nor tend their own children and few people in any century would bother bringing an infant out into the cold to say goodbye. At this point, even the most generous of viewers may finally break company with a dramatic but unreliable account of Mary’s tenuous rule over Scotland and deadly rivalry with Elizabeth I of England.
There has been plenty of previous provocation – in particular, a scene in which the warrior queen pointedly reveals her ecumenicalism as she tells an ordinary foot soldier that if they die that day, Catholics and Protestants will go to the same heaven. With Saoirse Ronan playing a young and fiery Mary, director Josie Rourke and screenwriter Beau Willimon are determined that the 16th-century queen can be a feminist heroine for the 21st century, and the more they insist on this interpretation, the more it stretches credulity.
Aged only 18 and already the widow of the young King of France, the Catholic Mary returns to Scotland to take up her throne – or rather wrest control of her realm away from a scheming nobility and the Protestant half-brother (James McArdle) who has been acting as regent. In short, she’s a woman in a man’s world, one that includes, alongside her dubious brother, the poisonously misogynist Protestant preacher John Knox (David Tennant) and the drunken English libertine Henry Darnley (Jack Lowden), who seduces her with oral sex. She marries him, but he is more interested in sleeping with her cross-dressing personal secretary David Rizzio (Ismael Cruz Cordova), who is the only sympathetic male character in either the Scottish or the English court.
As Mary wiggles her away around all these dastardly men, she reveals herself to be lusty, smart and brave – princess power personified including a not-so-politically palatable belief in her divine right to rule. Indeed, some of the most awkward moments here are those where Ronan must declare Mary’s ambition that her cousin Elizabeth name her England’s heir: Then, this liberal paragon sounds mainly uppity. Margot Robbie’s aging and suspicious Elizabeth is more convincingly conflicted as she puzzles out her strategy toward her Scottish relation, but the two women’s final confrontation is an emotional confusion in which Ronan’s performance founders against Mary’s erratic demands and insistence she is Elizabeth’s superior.
Some of Rourke and Willimon’s solutions – the script is based on the book Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart by John Guy – are clever: Earlier, Elizabeth can’t meet Mary because she is suffering from the pox. It’s an illness that leaves her face badly scarred (the film deserves an Oscar nomination for the makeup), and so gradually begins her mummification as the white-faced caricature she will become. And why not let Rizzio’s gender-bending persona secure him a happy place among Mary’s gentlewomen while banishing any hint of impropriety between the Queen and her confidante? It’s the way Ronan’s Mary so sweetly approves of his dual nature – and easily forgives his transgressions with Darnley – that jolts the audience out of the 16th century and into the present.
Perhaps you can accuse all historical fiction of presentism, the sin of applying contemporary values to historical events. Why does the past interest us if not for the comparisons it provides with the present? But with the example of The Favourite’s wittily anachronistic romp through the 18th-century court of Queen Anne so fresh at hand, it is hard not to judge the earnest Mary Queen of Scots for its ignorance of the problem.
Mary Queen of Scots opens Dec. 14.