The game of power is at play in Mary, Queen of Scots as two queens divided by religion, geography and belief vie for supreme power in a tightly wound historical drama.
Mary Queen of Scots explores the turbulent life of the charismatic Mary Stuart. Queen of France at 16 and widowed at 18, Mary defies pressure to remarry. Instead, she returns to her native Scotland to reclaim her rightful throne. But Scotland and England fall under the rule of the compelling Elizabeth 1. Each young Queen beholds her “sister” in fear and fascination. Rivals in power and in love, and female regents in a masculine world, the two must decide how to play the game of marriage versus independence. Determined to rule as much more than a figurehead, Mary asserts her claim to the English throne, threatening Elizabeth’s sovereignty. Betrayal, rebellion, and conspiracies within court imperil both thrones – and change the course of history.
The story of Mary, Queen of Scots is an epic battle of wills and two nations set against each other, each seen through the guise of their monarchs, and director Josie Rourke captures this powder keg of historical drama in all its intricate detail. In her feature film debut Rourke displays a clear knowledge of her subject matter and merges a complex narrative with historical detail that is both loyal to the past, and strikingly contemporary at the same time. Rourke is aware that no matter the time period the rules of power never change and her study of this theme wraps into the identities of the two Queens at the centre of her narrative. Through her eyes, she presents the facts and the high drama of two women, who supposedly should be sisters, but who can never be seen as such thanks to the world around them. Rourke gives a sense of the present to history and as an audience member, you find yourself embroiled in the personal challenges faced by each of these monarchs.
Taking the lead in the film is Saoirse Ronan as Mary Stewart, Queen of Scots, and her performance garners true sympathy in the audience for her portrayal of the doomed Queen. Ronan portrays Mary as a woman who is always true to her feelings and whose loyalty to her core beliefs make her naive to the realities that are in front of her. Blinded by her Catholic faith and her obsession with the English succession, Mary continually falls prey to the changing circumstances of her own court and her choices endanger her at every turn. Ronan’s performance is a heartfelt one and because of this, you feel a great sense of compassion for her as she falls ever deeper into the political abyss.
In direct response to Ronan’s girlhood ideals which govern her rule, Margot Robbie’s Elizabeth I is a strict and intelligent Queen, whose understanding of the world around her, and cunning strategic mind, make her a far more threatening presence than Mary ever could hope to be. Robbie takes a dramatic turn as Elizabeth and instead of the sublime beauty that normally radiates through on screen we see her as a scarred and ugly Elizabeth I who has been ravaged by smallpox and left barren with no hope of ever producing an heir. In Robbie’s performance, I get a sense of a woman who understands that her role in life is to serve her people and her country above her own base desires and this has made her a far more politically savvy person than Mary. But while she is unquestionably a head of state, Elizabeth is not exempt from petty jealousies and Mary’s continual desire to bait Elizabeth with everything she is not, whether it be her beauty, womanhood or ability to produce an heir, is what truly tests their bond as sister monarchs and leads to their eventual position as mortal enemies.
With Mary, Queen of Scots we ultimately get a portrait of girlhood vs womanhood and the concept of responsibility. While Mary is contempt to be ruled by her own base desires and is erratic in her political policies, Elizabeth takes the position of being firm to her role as a head of state and understands that her allegiance is to England above all else. Thematically its an interesting line for the film to walk, and while Mary is more of a woman than Elizabeth thanks to her beauty and ability to bear an heir, it’s ultimately Elizabeth who is more a mother to her nation and its people thanks to her desire to provide peace and prosperity where Mary’s inability to recognise the world around her only leads to death and strife.
Along with offering an analysis of medieval power, Rourke firmly places her attention on the two defining issues of the time: Religion and Succession. These two issues consumed every part of 16th Century life, and Rourke’s attention to their importance really impressed me with her regard to true historical representation. Not only do these two issues lead to massive tension in both the courts of Mary Stewart and Elizabeth I, but you really feel the dire position that Elizabeth finds herself in thanks to Mary’s unwavering belief that she is due the throne and that Mary could thus undo everything Elizabeth has spent her life achieving and thus this ensures Mary’s eventual doom.
Along with its heavy drama, Mary, Queen of Scots also carries some beautiful cinematography thanks to the lens of cinematographer John Mathieson (Logan, Kingdom of Heaven) and his eye really helps realize Rourke’s grand vision. Mathieson’s focus on natural light really serves to drive the narrative forward and his unique use of colour helps to differentiate the juxtaposing courts of Mary and Elizabeth. For Mary, his focus is on cool colours such as blues and purples to highlight the cold of Scotland, and for Elizabeth’s court, he radiates the screen with a warm palette of golds and ambers. This use of cinematography, coupled with rich costuming and impressive set design, draws the audience into the distinct world of these clashing Queens and there’s always another sight for you to feast your eyes upon as a viewer.
Returning to the narrative of Mary, Queen of Scots if you have read your history books then you no doubt know how this all ends. By her nature and very will Mary dooms herself to the executioner’s axe, but Rourke invokes a deep sense of sympathy for both Queens. Thanks to her direction you feel that each found themselves in an unavoidable position and a Queen’s duty must be to her nation and not her own feelings.
Mary, Queen of Scots is packed out with intense thrills and beautiful historical detail that captures the essence of two queens and their fight for supreme power where only one can rule absolutely.
Image: Universal Pictures