In the game of thrones, you win or you die. But in “Mary Queen of Scots,” the latest retelling of the life of Mary I of Scotland, there is no winning, at least not for women. A somewhat accurate historical drama set during the period from 1542 to 1587, the film depicts a moment when both England and Scotland were simultaneously ruled by women. As one would expect, men made sure to bring that era to as swift an end as they could.
Historical period pieces often reflect the attitudes of the eras in which they are made. “Mary Queen of Scots” is no exception. The script has been kicking around Hollywood for over a decade, but production didn’t really get rolling until last year, when Margot Robbie was cast to play Elizabeth I. And importantly, it began filming a mere month before #MeToo broke big.
While Saoirse Ronan’s Mary is the obvious protagonist — her death both begins and ends the film — the final product is more of a tale of two women, trapped and surrounded by a sea of men.
While Saoirse Ronan’s Mary is the obvious protagonist — her death both begins and ends the film — the final product is more of a tale of two women, trapped and surrounded by a sea of men. They are the proto “only woman in the room,” forced to demand respect from those who automatically assume themselves superior due to their sex. Each queen responds to the circumstances differently, but the outcome for both women highlights the inescapable trap that awaited women trying to make it in a man’s world.
The film suggests each woman’s decisions were also somewhat dictated by their different religious stances. Elizabeth I was the child of Anne Boleyn and second daughter of Henry VIII. Whether she was a devout Protestant doesn’t really matter, the only way for her to legally lay claim to the throne was to follow in her murdering father’s reject-the-pope footsteps. Mary, on the other hand, was Catholic, raised in France.
Mary’s religion put her at odds with Elizabeth, as it meant she didn’t see her cousin’s claim to the throne as legit. But in life, as in the film, Mary was generally a live-and-let-live type, happy to have Protestants like her half-brother on her council, and fine with Elizabeth ruling as Queen of England next door — provided she name Mary her heir.
The film is only passingly interested in this as the plot motivator, however. Instead, the movie focuses on how Mary’s Catholicism made her believe in marriage and children, and how that prevented her from divorcing her husband when he turns out to an utter disappointment and a liability.
Men disappointing the women around them is an ongoing theme for both Elizabeth and Mary. Elizabeth’s paranoia and chaste refusal to sleep with or marry men meant she was never surprised by how much they frustrated her. But the much more eager Mary was continuously undone by their failures. Her first husband, the already dead King of France, is portrayed as a boy who couldn’t figure out how to have sex at all. Her second husband, Henry Stuart (Jack Lowden), is portrayed as a closet case who she finds sleeping with her favorite male courtier David (Ismael Cruz Córdova) on their wedding night.
Whether or not Stuart was actually queer is a matter of debate. And Stuart’s sexuality isn’t the only place where the film takes liberties with the past. Luckily, these deviations are mostly forgivable. In fact, the film should be commended for being one of the few period pieces that consciously cast actors of color all over the place, a reminder that history was no more lily white than the present, though the nobility probably wasn’t this diverse. Still, this diversity helps highlight the moments when Mary or Elizabeth are surrounded exclusively by white men, vultures ready to jump on their rulers if they show a moment’s vulnerability.
The contemporary parallels are striking. Every choice Mary makes is used by men to undermine her. Her determination to have children and establish an heir leads to a subversion of normal gender roles. But once she does force her husband to impregnate her, the pregnancy becomes proof of Mary's love of the flesh and sin, according to a protestant priest (David Tennant, hidden under mounds of wig). When Henry is killed and Mary is forced to remarry a third time, she is labeled a harlot.
Elizabeth insists she succeeded where Mary failed because Elizabeth became more man than woman. But the film is pretty clear on which choice is supposed to be the better one. When the two finally meet (more than halfway through the film) Mary has lost her throne but still has all her teeth, good skin and lustrous hair. Elizabeth is already painting her face arsenic white to hide the pox scars and wearing terrifyingly clownish wigs because her hair has fallen out. By the time Elizabeth signs Mary’s death warrant (once again, for another plot the film suggests was engineered by men), she is a stony remote figure, unable to let anyone near her. Her refusal to play may have brought her a long successful reign, whereas Mary’s was brutally short and turbulent, but the English queen paid for her throne with her sense of self.
In the end, the writers seem to want audiences to go home believing Mary to have been the winner. After all, her son goes on to become James I of England after Elizabeth passes. But using the success of the male progeny to measure the success of the mother is problematic. And indeed, as Mary prepares for her beheading, and Elizabeth weeps at losing the only woman in the world who understood her plight, the truth becomes clear: Both women lived tragic lives, stifled by the men who could not let them be great.