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Rewriting Mary Queen of Scots


Movies have a responsibility to history. When relating a historical event or figure, films don’t have to be perfectly authentic, various liberties being not only acceptable, but sometimes necessary. However as vessels of storytelling they owe it to audiences to be honest, because after all, film is as legitimate a means of education as books. This not only pertains to basic biography that anyone can look up on wikipedia, but to individual personalities and the social and cultural contexts surrounding them. This is just a roundabout way of saying that on the one end of the scale of history on film is something like Shoah, on the other is Mary Queen of Scots, the most ridiculous period film I’ve seen in a while.
The film directed by English theatre director Josie Rourke adapts some of the notable facts of the life of the titular Queen Mary, while taking major liberties with her character and that of Elizabeth I to depict the former in an excessively positive light. For most of its runtime the film is thus completely unbelievable with its near propagandic adulation of Mary Queen of Scots. Yes she was unjustly executed, but she was not a perfect human.
Following the return of Mary Queen of Scots (Saoirse Ronan) to her homeland in 1561, she stakes her claim to the succession of England given Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie) has no child of her own. Sensing a threat on her crown, Elizabeth attempts to assuage Mary with a noble husband and eventually she weds Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden). But retaining her claim and that of her heirs, the story follows the Rising of the North, through the birth of her son James, and the opposition she faces in her own kingdom.
The degree to which Mary is sanctified as a great natural leader and an immense progressive and feminist centuries ahead of her time is absurd. Though some of her actions in the film are factual they’re framed very much in a way that condescends to the post-millennial liberal generation possibly studying her in high school right now. The nuances of her being a Catholic ruling a Protestant country are lost in favour of her being played as open-minded to all religious denominations. She and the script make a point of noting how opposed she is to traditional dominant-submissive connotations of marriage. There’s even a queer character who’s encouraged by Mary to be open and free among her ladies, which insultingly glosses over the very real ostracising and torment LGBTQ individuals were subject to in the sixteenth century. Likewise misleading in the portrait of Elizabethan Britain being painted is the noticeable ethnic diversity among the supporting characters, almost all of whom are people of class. It should be of no surprise that historically they were all white. And while I understand the sentiment is to allow non-white actors to be involved in the film it does run the risk of ignoring racism and the fact that the Atlantic slave trade was going on at the time this story is set. The production is too big and the commitment to realism in the locations, costumes, sets, etc. too dedicated to excuse this. What this is doing is making history palatable, making it relatable, which history never is. And it’s applying modern values onto the society of a period piece without understanding the consequences that come from that.
Despite being endlessly promoted as a movie about the relationship between Mary and Elizabeth I, England’s Queen gets quite a bit less screen-time for being played by an actress of Margot Robbie’s stature, and the two meet face-to-face only for the films’ climax. Robbie does deliver a pretty good performance though, despite having to work through a heavily frustrating script and even heavier make-up (which gives her the appearance of the Queen of Hearts from Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland). Elizabeth is often vilified or otherwise portrayed as pitiably envious of Mary. Her femininity is contrasted with Mary’s through her metaphorical statements of being made more man than woman by her crown, a criticism of her being not as proudly feminine as her Scottish cousin. As Mary, Saoirse Ronan is fine, if too melodramatic at times. She brings as much conviction as she can muster to the part though it amounts to little. Neither Robbie nor Ronan can overcome the material. And yes it is worth noting that once again a movie about a Scottish and an English Queen features neither a Scottish nor an English actress in either role. The best performances come from Guy Pearce as William Cecil, Elizabeth’s closest advisor, and David Tennant as John Knox, leader of the Church of Scotland, also vilified (though more justifiably so). Among the periphery figures, the cast also features Adrian Lester, Martin Compston, Ian Hart, Joe Alwyn, and a wasted Gemma Chan.
Mary Queen of Scots ends on a dramatically misinforming note, but by then I was hardly surprised. The film had gone out of its way to avoid authenticity, but what it was presenting in its stead was just uninteresting. It perhaps couldn’t afford battle sequences for the Northern Rebellion and doesn’t bother chronicling Mary’s internment in England for the last eighteen years of her life. And the most compelling facets of her rule are frequently clouded by the new contexts they’re given. This is a film with one goal: to make Elizabeth look bad and to make Mary look ideal, and it sacrifices a challenging story for it.

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