Often, a period piece tells us more about the era in which the film was made than the historical period in question. That is the case with Josie Rourke’s “Mary Queen of Scots,” written by Beau Willimon, which digs into the age-old question of gender and politics through the relationship of Scottish queen Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan) with her cousin and political foe Queen Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie). But this isn’t about a catfight. It’s a reckoning with the fact that women have always had to fight men tooth and nail for their power, even if granted through birth, because men fear “a woman with a crown.” The film opens in 1587, with Mary in prison, and it’s almost like you can almost hear the faint chants of “lock her up,” metaphorically.
The Queen of Scots and her wild, tumultuous life has been portrayed on film many times. This version’s closest comparison is the 1971 film “Mary, Queen of Scots” starring Vanessa Redgrave and Glenda Jackson as the two queens, which focuses on the same time period of Mary’s life: from her arrival in Scotland as the young widow of the King of France, throughout her turbulent, short-lived reign, before she was forced to abdicate the throne. With “House of Cards” writer Willimon adapting the script, the political machinations are equally cunning and blackly evil.
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In her feature debut, Rourke has crafted a sumptuous period piece through the lens of 2018 identity politics — an intersectional and feminist retelling of the history. People of color and queer people have been reinstated into the historically white, heteronormative genre, and rightfully so. It only serves to enhance the character and story, and it feels radical and fresh.
One can’t help but feel this version of “Mary Queen of Scots” could only have been made in a post-Hillary world, fueled by feminist anger searching for validation, for confirmation that men have ruined everything for centuries because they’re too afraid of a woman in power. A queen has to sacrifice her body, her desire, her family, and even if she sacrifices everything, she’ll still be pilloried as a whore by staunch religious fanatics like Church of Scotland firebrand John Knox (David Tennant in a full Rasputin get-up). The fiery, impulsive Mary has all her love, her child and her freedom ripped away from her, while Elizabeth preemptively eschews all that and remains in power.
Willimon’s script foregrounds the political nature of the queens’ sex lives to highlight how even their private lives are up for political debate as matters of policy: who is marrying whom, and who can most efficiently produce an heir, if they want to or not. Stylistically, Rourke matches this, mirroring shots that compare and contrast the two women, particularly when it comes to Mary’s fertility and Elizabeth’s decision not to take a husband or produce an heir. That choice is the key to her grasp on power, and the film visually underscores the choice as a tremendous personal sacrifice. Some might bristle that this weakens Elizabeth, but it humanizes her.
This is a film about the inextricable link between the personal and the political, which has always been women’s work. Late in the film, Mary beseeches Elizabeth to unite, because men thrive on their enmity and strife. But for Elizabeth, being queen was always a one-woman job, and a brutally tough one at that, as depicted in “Mary Queen of Scots.” Unfortunately, it’s never been good to be the queen.
starring Saoirse Ronan, Margot Robbie, Guy Pearce, Jack Lowden, Joe Alwyn and Gemma Chan. Directed by Josie Rourke. Rated R for some violence and sexuality. Running time: 2:04