In 1587, Elizabeth I signed the death warrant of her cousin, Mary Queen of Scots. With this feminist spin on the Elizabeth v Mary dynamic, theatre director Josie Rourke positions the two queens as women in a man’s world. Her movie’s subtitle could be ‘patriarchy in action’ – the point being that while you might be queen of Scotland, in the 16th century no one is going to step in when you’re being slapped around by your drunk husband. It makes for brooding, intelligent historical drama, faultlessly acted by a mix of Hollywood and theatrical A-listers.
So, it feels almost treacherous to confess that Mary Queen of Scots left me as cold as the execution axe’s blade – and that’s after watching twice to make sure I wasn’t missing something.
Saoirse Ronan as Mary brings her talent for complicating characters – making them feel like women with real, lived lives. Married at 15, Mary returns from France as a widow of 18 to rule Scotland – a plucky wildcard queen. She has a strong claim to the English throne, and a sly smile dances across her face when she hears that Elizabeth (Margot Robbie) has been struck with smallpox.
It’s moments like this that make Ronan so thrilling to watch, though the film tries a bit too hard to turn Mary into a carey-sharey millennial-friendly heroine – she’s implausibly relaxed catching her gay private secretary in bed with her new husband
Down in England, Robbie does her best, but Elizabeth is less a character and more a bag of eccentricities and neuroses (understandable perhaps when you think that her father had her mother bumped off). Mary’s youth and beauty – and later pregnancy – trigger her slightly older cousin’s insecurities.
GCSE history tells me this may be underestimating Elizabeth, though the script does a competent job unpicking post-Reformation politics – possibly at the expense of drama and pace. David Tennant hams it up royally as John Knox the Protestant preaching hellfire and brimstone on the Catholic queen. He spits “whoooore of Babylon” in a Scottish accent the likes of which we haven’t heard since Braveheart.
This is a period drama with a period – Mary’s menstruating was political after all…
This is a survival story, both women battling the condescending double-crossing codpiece-knobbed noblemen scheming in their courts. House of Cards writer Beau Willimon’s script portrays Elizabeth stalling the question of marriage, clock ticking.
Shrewdly, she reasons that any husband will have ambitions on her crown – and might be tempted to plot her downfall. Unlike Mary, she never mistakes being queen for having power. But the movie does turn Elizabeth into freakshow with a grisly transformation after her recovery from smallpox – caking on chalky white make-up and frizzy red wig to cover her pockmarked face and hair loss.
On the face of it so much of Mary Queen of Scots ought to feel totally modern. For a start this is a period drama with a period (Mary’s menstruating was political after all – the baby she gave birth to would became the first king of Scotland and England). And the film’s brilliant colour-blind casting must, once and for all, put an end to complainers blathering on about non-white actors playing white characters.
Watch the British-Chinese actor Gemma Chan play the powerful aristocrat Bess of Hardwick, richest woman of her time, and tell me another actor could pull off a hundredth of her beady intelligence. Perhaps it’s the recentness of Yorgos Lanthimos’s naughty royal comedy The Favourite that makes Mary Queen of Scots feel, well, a touch frumpy or conventional. But there it is.
Mary Queen Of Scots is in UK cinemas from January 18