By Andrea Thompson
At the beginning of “Mary: Queen of Scots,” I regretted that this was a film and not a miniseries, and thus limited by its runtime. You could have enough material for Mary’s life alone, and then there is the choice to feature Elizabeth, the monarch she found herself continually at odds with, despite their shared status as women ruling in a man’s world. But by the time the movie ended, I regretted that this movie ever existed in the first place.
Fresh after the death of her husband, Mary (Saoirse Ronan) arrives from France, the country where she grew up, to Scotland, where she was born. In an indication of things to come, her first steps onto the land that will end up breaking her leave her vomiting from seasickness. Soon it will do worse things. Or, as the movie makes clear time and time again, the men will. Screenwriter Beau Willimon, who also wrote for the series “House of Cards” and the 2011 film “The Ides of March,” is the kind of writer here who checks off various diversity boxes in order to make characters into noble martyrs who suffer at the hands of the powerful.
There are many side effects to characters who are so one-dimensional. One of the most damaging is their complete inability to be anything but noble, which means that anything which might make them remotely unlikable, and thus more human, is unthinkable. Everyone suffers for it, from the male members of the cast to the supporting players, and especially the two queens this movie is trying to do justice to. Then there’s the LGBT representation. The movie doesn’t so much follow the kill your gays trope as the violently, bloodily kill your gays trope. Every character with an orientation other than straight dies a hideously violent death. Gay people are blown up, nearly blown up and strangled, and a queer man of color is violently stabbed to death.
As for Mary, it reduces a complex woman who could be equal parts conniving, passionate, vulnerable, and entitled to a noble victim who has humiliation after humiliation heaped upon her, especially in the sexual realm. She is allowed one scene where she enjoys some cunnilingus, but when it comes to penetrative sex, the film would rather portray her as a victimized woman rather than a sexual one. Her counterpart Elizabeth (Margot Robbie) barely fares better, and is reduced to a caricature of a single woman, mourning her barren womb and longing for a child while she willingly leaves it to her advisors to plot and scheme against Mary. Noble victims are never complicit.
And having these women connive and plot against each other would make them something other than noble victims. So instead of portraying Mary as partly culpable in the death of her second husband Darnley (Jack Lowden) the father of her child, it makes her a pawn and subjects her to what becomes another sexual humiliation after a series of them. In reality, Mary had already began a passionate affair with another man while she was married to Darnley, and most likely helped arrange Darnley’s death.
These women were also opposed to each other not only due to their wombs, but how men saw them, and thus boxed them in accordingly. Mary was a Catholic woman who was associated with passionate sexuality, which men alternately opposed and praised, since she provided Scotland with a male heir. Elizabeth was the Protestant who was both revered and condemned for her virginity, since she chose not to marry and have children herself. When Mary’s son is born, the scene is cut as if Elizabeth were present, and she too not only rejoices that it is a son, it inspires her to finally stand up to the male courtiers plotting against Mary. It’s ironic in a movie that is supposed to be about female power that a male heir is a major turning point in a queenly relationship.
These women most likely never met in person, but the movie can hardly be blamed for inserting a scene where these two do convene in an attempt to negotiate their way out of the conflict they’re both embroiled in due to forces beyond their control. Ronan and Robbie also made the decision to remain apart during production until this one scene, and the raw emotion that comes out is real, bolstered by the already formidable talents both actresses have long since proved they possess, as well as the exquisite direction by Josie Rourke. If the rest of the film had been this sensitive, “Mary Queen of Scots” could’ve at least been an average, or even above average effort to explore a history that is so often misconstrued. Instead, both women are done a disservice in a more modern way, which nevertheless still retrains traces of the more old-fashioned kind of sexism.