- 28 Jan 19
A feminist lens adds an emotional layer to an otherwise conventional historical drama in Mary Queen of Scots.
Saoirse Ronan puts in another compelling performance as the eponymous 18-year-old in Josie Rourke's Mary Queen Of Scots, returning to Scotland from France after the death of her husband. Despite being innately controversial thanks to her Catholicism and self-confidence, Mary seems like a likely heir to the throne of her Protestant cousin Elizabeth I's throne. However, the women are pitched against each other in a political game that, as the film's opening beheading reveals, only one can survive.
Their lives and courts run in interesting parallel, as they discover that few of their advisors can be trusted, and underhand political machinations are endlessly whirring. The isolated Elizabeth repeatedly states that having to rule without emotion or love has made her 'like a man', while Mary's strength is undeniably feminine, and she is constantly surrounded by a supportive group of women, lovers and gender non-conforming friends. This is used against her by John Knox (David Tennant, miscast), a powerful Protestant preacher who excoriates Mary's morals to increasingly large crowds. Despite their different approaches, the women are connected by the pressure they feel to either fit into a man's world, or face the consequences.
Occasionally these contrasts can be overstated and ironically patronising. Casting Elizabeth as a tragic spinster undermines her agency, despite Margot Robbie's wonderfully empathetic performance. Meanwhile, Mary's progressive characterisation can be eye-rollingly saintly, such as when she accepts a deep personal betrayal merely because the transgressor is gay. It strikes an unrealistic tone that makes the character more woke than human.