Josie Rourke’s Mary Queen of Scots portrays the relationship between the emponyous figure (Saoirse Ronan) and Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie) as less of a rivalry and more of a strained camaraderie. Its focus is far less on placing the two figures in opposition to one another and more on representing them both as strong, independent leaders constrained by circumstances. In a (less historically accurate albeit more feminist) twist on the historical events occurring between Mary Stuart and Elizabeth I, the two are simply strong women looking to act as good leaders within their countries, and often being (mis)guided by their male advisers.
Of course, they are separated by a number of factors: Mary’s claim to Elizabeth’s throne and her position as a powerful Catholic woman are two obvious sources of tension in the film. Yet throughout the duration, the two women are paralleled: they both have the same uncertainties and fears about succession and the security of their crowns, as well as their status as powerful women in what would definitely be considered to be a man’s world. Indeed, the conclusion of the film sees James I, Mary Stuart’s son, taking his place on the English throne. When unity between England and Scotland is finally achieved, it is through a male heir.
Mary Queen of Scots is beautifully tragic in its depiction of the downfall of Mary Stuart, and Saoirse Ronan excels in the title role. Her Mary is strong and unafraid to stand up for herself, asserting herself in the face of intimidation. She is beautifully paralleled by Margot Robbie’s Elizabeth I; a figure whose beauty is markedly changed throughout the course of the narrative. Indeed, one initial fear Elizabeth has about her cousin is how much more beautiful she is than herself. Robbie becomes more and more unrecognisable as insecurity and fear dominate her, and she makes the transformation into the ‘Queen of Hearts’ Elizabeth that is recurrent throughout popular culture. Her downfall comes from her insecurity, with Robbie’s heartfelt voice-over as Ronan’s character is led to the scaffold, expressing regret and a desperation to be forgiven for her actions.
The two figures have parallel downfalls as powerful women with thrones, but Ronan’s Mary and Robbie’s Elizabeth are also antitheses. Mary remains feminine and proud of her position as a powerful woman, whereas Elizabeth expresses regret that she has been stripped of her femininity by the throne. She is, she believes, more male than female by the end of the encounter with Mary, losing her association with her gender in a Lady Macbeth style fashion.
The film is preoccupied with gender throughout. Mary is barraged by a series of men who refer to her as “strumpet” and make comments about her sexuality as part of their attempts to dethrone her. Elizabeth is besieged by people asking her about her prospects of producing an heir and securing a Tudor succession of the English throne. Rourke creates a world which focuses on the struggles both monarchs faced during their reigns as a direct result of their sexes.
Accompanied by minimalist music, Mary grows as a person within the comfort of Holyrood before venturing to England accompanied by music of a more epic scale, in a clear transition. The shots become wider and the film takes on a more epic and less intimate quality at this point, which only highlights the tragedy of Mary’s inevitable downfall.
Rourke’s film is a visual masterpiece filled with beautiful, intricate set and costume design and a mixture of sweeping and close shots to draw the audience in before exposing them to the tragedy unfolding on screen. This is accompanied by poignant acting from both Ronan and Robbie, putting a new spin on a classic story.
~ Izzy Noble