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Non-Review Review: Mary, Queen of Scots

Mary, Queen of Scots is unfocused and unmoored.

Mary, Queen of Scots feels like it should be a star vehicle for Saoirse Ronan. This makes sense. Ronan is a star in ascent. She has three Oscar nominations, and has recently headlined films with broad appeal like Brooklyn and Lady Bird. The concept of building a star vehicle for Ronan from the life and times of Mary Stuart seems like a good idea. Ronan experimented with larger-scale films in her teens like The Lovely Bones or The Host, but it seems perfectly reasonable to have her approach a large scale period drama as a genuine movie star.

Beth left unsaid.

However, Mary, Queen of Scots suffers from what feels like a crisis of confidence. The film’s second-billed lead is Margot Robbie, a successful Oscar-winning actor with similar star wattage to Ronan. Despite the fact that Mary Stuart retained the title of the film, Mary, Queen of Scots has largely been sold and marketed as a film with two leads; consider the misguided #dearsister hashtag publicity campaign, or the misguided branding on the character-focused profiles. It often seems like Mary, Queen of Scots clumsily aspires to be a biography of Queen Elizabeth I.

Mary, Queen of Scots is never entirely sure whether it wants to be a character-driven story focused on one woman’s life or a two-hander about lives in parallel. Watching the film, it feels like the decision was repeatedly taken and revised at various points during production, never committing to one approach for fear that it might preclude the other. The result is uneven and disjointed. Mary, Queen of Scots devotes enough time to Queen Elizabeth I that she feels like a major player, but only managed to get Ronan and Robbie together on set for a single day.

Queen of hearts.

The most frustrating aspect of Mary, Queen of Scots is that it would be entirely possible to exorcise most of the scenes focusing on Queen Elizabeth I. For the bulk of the film, the two characters converse through letters and emissaries, occasionally sending ambassadors to one another’s courts and trying to navigate delicate alliances with one another. This is an interesting dramatic set-up, a tale of two great powers controlled by women who are forced to converse with one another through men that are their social inferiors. There is solid drama to be wrung from this.

However, the film feels too disconnected to properly develop these themes. Most obviously, this is because the narrative is very heavily weighted towards Mary Stuart. Despite the co-billing that the film gives to its two stars and despite the branding on the advertising campaign, the story of Mary, Queen of Scots is that of the title character. The film opens with Mary’s execution and flashes back to her return to Scotland. The overwhelming majority of scenes set in England focus on Elizabeth reacting to her cousin’s intrigues and actions.

Queen Elizabeth I had a lot going on during the years covered by Mary, Queen of Scots. In fact, during those years, there was enough going on to warrant two separate feature films by Shekhar Kapur starring Cate Blanchett. Covering a lot of the same era, Elizabeth and Elizabeth: The Golden Age provide an interesting contrast to Mary, Queen of Scots. Despite the fact that the two films take up considerably more real estate, they also make a conscious choice to focus on their protagonist. Mary Stuart is a secondary character in both, even changing actor between films.

Mary, Queen of Scots might have been shrewder to adopt a similar approach, to accept Mary as its sole protagonist and to reduce Queen Elizabeth I to a supporting player in a much larger drama. However, Mary, Queen of Scots devotes a considerable amount of runtime to sequences that involve Margot Robbie and Guy Pearce walking through very impressive surroundings delivering awkward exposition about the politics of the time without actually making any significant decisions that impact on intrigue swirling around Mary Stuart.

Firing off a rebellion.

Even accepting the idea of writing Mary, Queen of Scots as a two-hander, the film adopts a very strange approach. The bulk of Mary, Queen of Scots is focused on Mary’s efforts to secure control of Scotland as the establishment plots against her. This is a sound narrative choice, as this is where the meat of Mary Stuart’s story lies. However, it is not where the heart of a story about Mary and Elizabeth lies. If Mary, Queen of Scots were to commit to being a two-hander focused on Mary and Elizabeth, it would make sense to focus on the time their lives most directly overlapped.

Instead, Mary, Queen of Scots makes a point to end with the moment where the two characters’ lives most directly overlap. The trailer milk a lot of drama from Mary and Elizabeth sizing one another up, but the sequence comes very late in the story. The bulk of the history between the two monarchs is reduced to clumsy closing exposition; the time that Mary spent as a captive of Elizabeth, the plot against Elizabeth in which Mary was allegedly a participant, Elizabeth’s decision to order the execution of her “sister monarch.”

Pearcing insight.

This creates a narrative quandary for Mary, Queen of Scots. The film is narratively a straightforward biographical picture where the subject is the eponymous character, but it is structurally a two-hander in which the secondary lead actually has very little impact in how the drama plays out. The biggest challenge facing Mary, Queen of Scots is to justify including so much focus on Queen Elizabeth I in a story that is quite clearly more interested in the decisions made and actions taken by Mary Stuart. The solution to this issue is misguided and ill-judged.

Mary, Queen of Scots decides to focus on the challenges of being a woman ruling in a world still shaped and defined by men. This is a perfectly reasonable and valid approach for this type of film. It informed no small part of Elizabeth and The Golden Age. In fact, there are several points in Mary, Queen of Scots where the film feels like something of a throwback to nineties feminism in the same way that other awards season contenders like Green Book hark back to the awkward racial politics that defined so many earlier awards fare films.

A fully developed character (mon)arch…

Mary, Queen of Scots adopts a very broad approach to issues of sexism and sexuality. David Tennant has great fun playing the theologian John Knox, whose primary role seems to be to espouse cartoonishly cliché sexism. “In your case, as with all women, sight is but blindness,” Knox tells Mary in their first meeting. “Are we to abide a woman and a papist both?” Later, he tries to stir up resentment against the monarch by rallying troops to his cause, “There is a plague in our land, worst than famine or pestilence. A woman with a crown.”

There is something similarly unimaginative in the film’s attempts to present female-empowered sexuality through an emphasis on cunnilingus. Male-on-female has become something of a lazy shorthand in contemporary mainstream cinema in films like Fifty Shades of Grey for female pleasure in sex; it feels like for modern cinema it is almost impossible to imagine female sexual pleasure in any other way. While it is good to see mainstream cinema pushing back against the MPAA’s double standards, it still seems like a broad approach to female-empowered sex.

Taking her shot.

Mary, Queen of Scots suggests that Mary meets a male suitor worthy of his affection once he proceeds to perform oral sex on him. It’s a rather surreal scene, one hinging on the idea that the audience will find the act particularly exotic or unconventional. Once Mary’s needs have been satisfied, she asks her partner, “Do you need to…?” He responds, “Don’t worry about me.” The sexual politics of the scene get even more surreal as the relationship between Mary and her sort-of-lover develop.

Again, there is interesting material here, but all feels very superficial and clumsy. Mary, Queen of Scots often feels like it follows the path of least resistance in trying to communicates ideas to the audience. The problem isn’t that Mary, Queen of Scots is interested in the sexual politics of a female monarch trying to maintain control of her kingdom as men plot against her, it is that that the film can only articulate those ideas in the broadest possible terms and the most predictable manner.

Royal pains.

This carries over into the way that Mary, Queen of Scots attempts to parallel Mary and Elizabeth. The film understandably juxtaposes Mary and Elizabeth as “sister monarchs”, in particular about how they approach their gender and identity. However, Mary, Queen of Scots chooses to put its emphasis in the most obvious and most outdated of places. Mary and Elizabeth are repeatedly contrasted within a very narrow definition of what it is to be a woman; as a wife and as a mother.

It is one thing for the men around them to make this comparison, but the film itself leans into it. Mary is portrayed as the protagonist of the film. If she has a tragic flaw, it is that she was born too early into a world not yet ready for a female leader. All of the men around Mary betray her; her royal court, her lover, her brother. Mary’s position is something of a paradox. She has no way to survive other than to rely on the men around her, but she also cannot rely on the men around her. As a result, she is doomed.

A Great Scot?

There is something to be said about systemic sexism in this, in the manner in which the structures of authority serve to ensnare Mary. Mary is repeatedly betrayed and undermined by the men around her. She is a woman of wit and insight, and it is to her credit that she evades as many of those traps as she can, but Mary, Queen of Scots keeps coming back to the way in which society itself boxes Mary in. Mary must produce an heir to secure her claim. As such, she must take a husband who is a threat to her, and must give birth to a son that can be leveraged against her.

However, Mary is contrasted with how Elizabeth approaches her reign. Elizabeth obviously lives longer than her cousin, and retains power for longer. Elizabeth does this by eschewing a lot of the compromises that Mary makes to the male-dominated world. As William Cecille explains of Elizabeth, “Nor will she marry. She suspects all suitors of trying to steal her throne.” Mary learns that hard truth first-hand, which is something that Elizabeth understands on a primal and fundamental level. If anything, Mary has a lot to learn from Elizabeth.

Thinly veiled threats.

Of course, there is a similar tragedy inherent in this set up, in the simple fact that Elizabeth is so vulnerable to the systems around her that she must forego having a family for fear of being ensnared in the way that Mary has been. The structures that bind these women are cruel and vindictive, and there is no justification for them. A smarter movie would suggest that both Mary and Elizabeth are victims of the societies that they nominally rule, exploring how the game is rigged against these women no matter how they play.

Unfortunately, Mary, Queen of Scots repeatedly and forcefully insists that Mary and Elizabeth are essentially playing against each other rather than against a system. The film measures the pair against one another, hoping to identify a winner and a loser. Unsurprisingly, given the title of the film, Mary, Queen of Scots crowns Mary Stuart the winner in the competition between these two women. It does this by suggesting that Mary’s approach was inherently better than that of Elizabeth, and that Elizabeth was inherently lesser because she did not adopt that approach.

Baby steps.

Quite frankly and troublingly, Mary, Queen of Scots suggests that Mary is inherently “better” than Elizabeth because she is a mother. Elizabeth’s failure to produce an heir is repeatedly framed as a weakness. The royal court speculates that this will allow Mary to outmanoeuvre Elizabeth, and place a Scottish King on the throne. The closing scenes suggest that such fear was justified, playing the ascent of King James I as one last laugh from Mary against her tormentors, allowing her the ultimate victory against both her cousin and the world itself.

More to the point, Mary, Queen of Scots repeatedly stresses that this is a point of insecurity for Elizabeth herself, that Elizabeth’s inability to have children somehow makes her less of a woman. Elizabeth repeatedly suggests that she is man in any way that counts. “I am more man than woman now,” she warns Mary. “This throne has made me so.” Remarking that God wants women to be wives and mothers, Cecille asks Elizabeth, “So you choose to defy Him?”  Elizabeth responds, “No, I choose to be a man.”

More to the point, Mary, Queen of Scots allows its title character one brief moment of doubt about her choices in life. “I should have stayed true to your example,” Mary tells Elizabeth. “I should never have married.” Elizabeth responds, in an unguarded moment, “Then you would have no son.” It is clear that Elizabeth sees herself as lesser. She later states, “I was jealous. Your beauty, your bravery, your motherhood. You seemed to surpass me in every way. Now I see there is no cause for envy. Your gifts are your downfall.” However, the closing scene suggests they are also her victory.

The film reinforces this notion through more than just dialogue. In the film’s most direct visual contrast of its two leads, the birth of James to Mary is juxtaposed with a shot of Elizabeth quilling flowers; both women are making something, but Mary is making something that matters while Elizabeth is making something that she would happily throw on the fire. The visual comparison is quite impressive here; the blood-stained bedsheets under Mary compared to the floral arrangements under Elizabeth. However, it portrays Elizabeth as something like a spinster.

The quilling is mightier than the sword.

These choices are clumsy and ill-judged, and they dramatically undercut Mary, Queen of Scots. There are a series of much more interesting and compelling movies trapped somewhere within Mary, Queen of Scots, lost in the spaces between the various competing movies that Mary, Queen of Scots is trying to be. Unfortunately, none of them manage to make it to the surface.

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