The sixteenth-century conflict between Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland, and Elizabeth Tudor, Queen of England, is hardly new to films: from John Ford’s “Mary of Scotland” with Katharine Hepburn and Florence Eldridge in 1936 to Charles Jarrot’s “Mary, Queen of Scots” with Vanessa Redgrave and Glenda Jackson in 1971, the tale has been a big-screen favorite, and television hasn’t ignored it either.
In this new version screenwriter Beau Willimon, working from a book by John Guy, and Josie Rourke, another notable British theatrical director making a film debut, put a decisively feminist spin on their telling of the women’s story, presenting them as responding very differently to the pressures of trying to rule within a male-dominated world—with divergent results. It becomes a tale of what might have been a sisterhood of crowned heads turned into a competition for power that ultimately proved deadly.
To be sure, previous tellings—including Jarrot’s (written by John Hale)—have necessarily pointed to the problems faced by female rulers in an earlier period, but Rourke and Willimon put a spin on the story of Mary and Elizabeth that carries a modern feel in the days of Theresa May (and Hillary Clinton). While Redgrave’s Mary was tremulous, wistful and malleable, Saoirse Ronan presents her as strong-willed, imperious and implacable, even in the face of vitriolic abuse from the likes of fanatical churchmen John Knox (David Tennant), who, after all, famously wrote a jeremiad titled “The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstruous Regiment of Women” even before the widowed Mary returned to Scotland from France to claim her throne in 1561.
But as Willimon shows, Mary’s problems involved many men who surrounded her, jockeying for control. Her half-brother Moray (James McArdle) paid lip service to her but aimed at seizing power. Her marriage to the pleasure-seeking Darnley (Jack Lowden) fed into her desire to strengthen her claim to the English throne (which came through her grandmother Margaret Tudor, daughter of Henry VII), but weakened her hold on Scotland. The murders of both her favorite Rizzio (Ismael Cruz Cordova) and Darnley, along with the determination of her supposedly faithful supporter Bothwell (Martin Compston) to use her for his own political purposes, led to her forced abdication and flight to England in 1568.
Of course Mary’s Catholicism was an obstacle too, not only for the Calvinist Knox but her cousin Elizabeth, who was looked upon by English Catholics as a usurper because of what they saw as her illegitimacy as the daughter of Henry VIII by Anne Boleyn—a marriage the Roman Church did not recognize as valid. Whatever sympathy Elizabeth had for her cousin’s difficulties was certainly undermined by Mary’s decision to reject an offer of marriage from Elizabeth’s favorite (and potential spy) Dudley (Joe Alwyn) in favor of the Catholic Darnley, who also had a claim to the English throne through Margaret Tudor by her second marriage. Elizabeth’s attitude hardened under pressure from her council, most notably her chief minister Cecil (Guy Pearce), and when Mary fled to England expecting support, she was instead confined, only to be eventually executed in 1587 when she was accused—whether accurately or not—of conspiring against the queen.
Rourke and Willimon actually cover this bewilderingly complicated material fairly fully, though in a fashion that—understandably, in view of the director’s stage background—is extremely theatrical. To be sure, the film fails to convey the passage of time very well—it covers more than a quarter of a century, but hardly seems to—and it embraces some inventions that have no historical foundation (like a personal meeting between Mary and Elizabeth that never occurred, though it portrays it in a semi-hallucinatory way; but then the 1971 film did so as well). Overall, though, it certainly follows the record far more accurately than did the recent TV series “Reign” in depicting Mary’s earlier years in France, though that CW program admittedly set a very low bar.
While one might quibble over some historical details, in any event, the film presents Mary’s unhappy story well, in both visual and dramatic terms. The physical production is excellent, with cinematographer John Mathieson’s widescreen images giving the locations an almost tactile feel, and the production design by James Merifield and costumes by Alexandra Byrne evokes the period skillfully. Chris Dickens’ editing moves the complicated play of crosses and double-crosses along nicely, though even with a two-hour running-time some viewers might have some problem keeping up, and Max Richter’s score adds to the ambience.
Of course, the trappings would hardly matter without strong acting. The supporting cast is uniformly fine, though Tennant comes on awfully strong (so did Knox), and Pearce is oddly restrained (it even seems that his lines have been overdubbed). But all of them pale beside the two stars. Robbie gives Elizabeth a steely quality that encapsulates her determination to overcome the efforts of men to manipulate her by, as she admits, becoming manly herself; this queen overcame the prejudices of her time with the same sternness that she did the disfiguring effects of the pox on her face with heavy makeup.
As good as Robbie is, however, it’s Ronan who dominates as the passionate Scottish queen, who proves emotionally unable to take charge over the men around her. The actress, who actually bears a strong resemblance to Mary as she appears in contemporary portraits, delivers a powerhouse turn, forcefully conveying the monarch’s shifting moods and tragic downfall.
Rourke’s take on the Mary-Elizabeth confrontation is unlikely to be the final cinematic word on the subject, but among existing films about the doomed queen of Scots, it’s the finest yet.