Mary Queen of Scots (Josie Rourke, 2018)
Having just seen a rather mixed version of Richard II, with Simon Russell Beale, this felt rather theatrical, albeit without the poetry. There’s the Meaningful Looks from ensemble dignitaries, many of whose names escape me, brandishing of papers, condensation of time (oh, is that the same day or twenty years later?)… the climactic encounter between the two two leads which seems to be staged amidst indoor washing lines. And there’s Simon Russell Beale, in a brief cameo. There’s also race blind casting — yes, there were people of colour in Elizabethan England (and presumably Marian Scotland), but Bess of Hardwick (Gemma Chan) and the English ambassador (Adrian Lester)? It comes as no surprise that Rourke comes from the theatre — the Donmar Warehouse — and is better at tableaux than action.
Inevitably the comparison is with The Favourite, to its detriment. Whilst Lanthimos was content to toss us into Anne’s England to sink or swim, and paid attention to historical context only when it suited him, here we have pre and post film captions — how Mary Stuart has a claim to the throne of England and is thus a threat to Elizabeth I’s throne, but has left Scotland for France to be married off aged 15, but hubby has now died. And then, spoilers, her son James I becomes king, thus entirely sorting out the succession issue for all time. Ahem. Sometimes we get captions to tell us where we are, but this is not at all consistent.
One of my objections to the film from the trailer was the sense that Mary was speaking English, but we first hear her speaking French. So far so good. Then she switches to English with a Scottish accent — and I’m presuming we’re meant to be hearing Scots but it’s being translated in a Doctor Who kind of way as we don’t get upset by Joan of Arc not speaking French onscreen. She doesn’t seem to understand Gaelic, mind. She is a powerful presence and Saoirse Ronan is impressive — the character is not innocent of politics and power play, and aware of the need to marry for convenience rather than love and we are shown the violent side of sex.
On the other hand, it is men who are the tokens in a story about two women. Elizabeth (Margot Robbie) offers her her own suitor Dudley (Joe Alwyn, last seen as Abigail’s convenience in The Favourite), but she elects to go for Henry Darnley (Jack Lowden) instead, who has his own claim to the thrones. Darnley is a master of the tongue, in more ways than one, and having pleasured her premarriage seems unconcerned with his own happy ending —on what appears to be his wedding night he ends up in bed with David Rizzio (Ismael Cruz Cordova). As with The Favourite we have a trickiness of pinning post 1870 categories of sexuality onto historical figures, but Dr John Guy, author of the source biography for the film, believes so. And there’s a Mary, Queen of Scots (Charles Jarrott, 1971) where Timothy Dalton is also gay. It can’t end well, though; it is rumoured that Rizzio is James’s real father.
Meanwhile we build to my second worry — a meeting between Mary and Elizabeth. Dramatically we need it — it’s the queen-off of this political history. Elizabeth gets the lesser role in the film, advised by a less than omnipotent William Cecil (when did Guy Pearce get so old?), snuggling with Dudley, refusing to have a husband and child, afflicted with the pox. Mostly she is in bedchambers or cathedral like palace rooms, once she gets to stand on the roof, possibly of Hardwick Hall. But essentially it’s eight years of stalemate. As far as we know, they never met, but then as far as we know she never went to the Globe or had an affair with a time lord. Dr John Guy reckons they did, and saw some documents, but… It’s a dramatic necessity and it’s in the Friedrich Schiller play and some of the earlier films, but it felt as if it was all tease, as they fumble through the sheets to each other. Elizabeth has issues. She comes off second best, but offers Mary house arrest. Castle arrest. As long as she behaves herself.
Can anyone spell Ridolfi Plot, Throckmorton Plot or Babbington Plots? Stitch ups?
And twenty years pass without anyone aging.
Meanwhile, the film’s true mystery, in which 10 (David Tennant) disguises himself as John
Smith Knox with a heavy beard, scowl and an implacable hatred of the monstrous regiment of women, interfering in history and generally being treasonous without much consequence .
So we have a film directed by a woman, and almost with two female leads, which is to be welcomed. Mary is hardly a victim, able to play political games — but we never quite get inside her as there is one too many plots we have not been told about where she outnumbers the men. It might be as well we’re spared the two decades of incarceration — the film already felt pretty long and risks being less interesting than the true events