A legendary beauty with a string of dead lovers and a dangerous claim to the English throne, Mary Stuart is a figure who has long fascinated historians. She has been painted as a murderer, a traitor, and a slut. But Mary Queen of Scots reconsiders this bad reputation and reconstructs her as a proto-feminist heroine who was condemned for her ambition, her beauty, and for trying to have it all.
Based on John Guy’s nonfiction book Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart, this bold biopic focuses on the life-defining rivalry between the Queen of Scotland and the Queen of England, Elizabeth I. Margot Robbie paints Elizabeth as painfully paranoid, convinced all around her are out to snatch her power. She’s suspicious of her advisers (all male). She refuses to be wed or bear children, fearing any husband or son would challenge her position. So naturally, she sees her fellow queen and cousin as a threat, and envies Mary’s beauty and youth, especially as her own withers. However, Mary’s charms (deftly depicted by Saoirse Ronan) cannot save her from the duplicitous men in her own kingdom.
Though she’s just matured into her father’s throne, Mary speaks to her advisers with an unflappable confidence. She’s bright and beguiling, but being Catholic and female, she earns her instant enemies, including Protestant minister John Knox (David Tenant, spitting fire and casting piercing Doctor glares), who decries her as a “Queen strumpet” to his scowling congregation. Repeatedly, men in this movie snarl over the indignity of having to obey a woman. But beyond her gender, Mary makes enemies with her impulsiveness and arguable selfishness. When she marries out of passion, it sparks dissension in the ranks. And through these dueling portraits of captivating queens, screenwriter Beau Willimon and director Josie Rourke explore how women are basically damned if we do or damned if we don’t.
Both Mary and Elizabeth are queens. They possess power, but this is still a man’s world. So to keep it, they are constantly in battles with men who presume they know better, or worse, men who feel entitled to what these women possess, be it their thrones or their bodies. To defend against both, Elizabeth makes herself into a frigid statue and The Virgin Queen. In a woeful monologue, Elizabeth declares she sacrificed the pleasures of marriage and motherhood to her vocation. She is the Madonna, while Mary is the Whore. For following her passion, Mary is judged reckless, and so is grossly disrespected then betrayed by her advisers. Both women suffer under this patriarchal dichotomy. By giving all to her work, Elizabeth keeps her power, but sacrifices her personal life and thereby happiness. Mary fought for her personal life, and so lost her crown, her freedom, and eventually her life.
It’s an intriguing approach to this story, but it’s sloppily done. Elizabeth is so fragile and frantic that she comes off as a caricature of female hysteria. Meanwhile, Mary feels like the heroine of a childish fan fiction, where everything she does is depicted with breathless wonder, even when it’s an obvious mistake. We’re urged to chuckle as she irritates her uncertain allies and to cheer as she sends Elizabeth a shady missive. It’s a pleasure to watch Mary laugh and talk about boys with her squad (the four Maries and her gay bestie David Rizzio). But when this same breeziness is applied to battle scenes and heated debates, it can be a bit galling. Something I’m not certain Rourke recognizes. Similarly frustrating is that Willimon follows a fan-fiction tact in assuming his audience is already familiar with the characters and story’s context. Interactions and dialogue race by, presuming we already possess a sturdy grasp of the complicated relationships that led to Mary and Elizabeth’s rivalry, and the tensions between Catholics and Protestants in the Elizabethan era. As an American watching this British historical drama, I was often confused over character actions or motivations, feeling as if I’d missed a crucial scene, or perhaps a required history seminar. A courtier would give a knowing glance, and I’d wonder desperately what do they know!
Mary Queen of Scots is a bit of a mess. Its plotting is at times incoherent. Its characters range from one-note to inexplicable. But even when I couldn’t follow the plot, I was entranced. Amid a world alive with color and exhilarating costume designs, Willimon and Rourke bring a compelling urgency and modern edge to this story by focusing on the feminist politics at play in this royal tragedy. They explore how the patriarchy urges women in power into the trap of regarding each other as enemies instead of sisters. And even when graceless, this is a thrilling depiction. No doubt some will decry the liberties the film takes with the historical record to achieve its scorching climax. But that is the way of biopics, and not something I’ll bemoan.
Though wonky, Mary Queen of Scots awed me. Robbie sinks her teeth into the role of Elizabeth and draws blood. With a cool charisma and a regal sneer, Ronan makes Mary a fittingly fascinating diva. And Rourke gives the film some unforgettable imagery that haunts me still. The strongest is a cut from Mary to Elizabeth after the former has given birth. Both women sit in a white dress, red pooling between their spread legs. For Mary, the red is blood, borne from the coming of her son and heir. She cradles her newborn prince happily, not even noticing this carnage. For Elizabeth, the red is a plethora of tiny paper flowers, crafted by her own hands, a hobby that fills her time instead of children. Her face is slack in despair, as her arms lay empty with no baby to embrace. It’s here — when Rourke allows the visuals and her outstanding leading ladies to carry the moment — that Mary Queen of Scots is fleetingly but inarguably magnificent.
Kristy Puchko (@KristyPuchko) is a New York-based film critic and entertainment journalist, her work has appeared in Vanity Fair, IndieWire, Nerdist, and Pajiba (to name a few). Ms. Puchko is a regular contributor on the Slashfilmcast, and teaches a course on film criticism at FIT. To see more of her work, visit DecadentCriminals.com