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“Mary Queen of Scots” is film royalty

"Mary Queen of Scots" by Kasman

Image: “Mary Queen of Scots” by Kasman

Irish actress Saoirse Ronan’s portrayal of Mary Stuart in the movie “Mary Queen of Scots” reminds viewers of the gentle Susan Pevensie in “Narnia” and the powerful Daenerys Targaryen in “Game of Thrones.” Her performance encapsulates youth’s whimsy while highlighting the difficulties of ruling a kingdom (or queendom) as a woman.

The 2-hour film whisks audiences back to 1500s Europe, complete with high-definition shots of breathtaking Scottish scenery. Despite the movie’s visual appeal, the plot quickly establishes itself as conflict-ridden and foreshadows tragedy for the resilient queen.

For those unfamiliar with Mary Stuart, she ruled Scotland from 1542-1567 at the same time Elizabeth I, her cousin (once removed), presided over England and Ireland. Though positioned as political foes, Mary and Elizabeth’s characters share much in common with one another. “Mary Queen of Scots” gorgeously illustrates their tale of defiance, sacrifice and womanhood.

The film’s plot begins shortly after Mary’s first husband’s death, Francis II of France. The widow returns to Scotland and reunites with her half-brother, James, played by Scottish actor James McArdle. James, though a smaller character in the scheme of things, struggles heavily with internal conflict throughout the movie.

In a time when women were seen but not heard, James is torn between seizing power for himself or remaining loyal to his half-sister. Whilst Mary considers herself a devout Catholic, James essentially leads the Scottish Protestants, putting more strain on their relationship and Scotland’s already palpable religious turmoil. Unfortunately for Mary, familial issues and religious differences are not the only forces threatening to knock her off of her throne.

Since multiple English Catholics spurn the legitimacy of the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I in favor of Mary, the Scottish queen’s mere presence plagues the fiery Elizabeth I. Enter Australian actress Margot Robbie, who plays an unyielding yet vulnerable Elizabeth, who discards notions of marriage and children in order to maintain her unquestionable status as monarch. I had never seen Robbie’s work prior to “Mary Queen of Scots,” even though I had heard of her notable breakout role as Naomi Lapaglia in “The Wolf of Wall Street.”

Regardless, her acting in this film left me with a very positive first impression. Robbie’s arresting facial expressions and nuanced delivery makes her portrayal of the English monarch absolutely captivating to watch.  

After seeing the film, I went online to read some reviews to gauge if my satisfaction was shared amongst critics. To my mild surprise, I encountered a considerable amount of mixed reviews. One particularly bothersome statement said, “This film’s inability to decide whether Mary and Elizabeth I are enemies or allies means that Margot Robbie’s performance as Elizabeth is nowhere near as confident.” I disagree with this excerpt in The Guardian’s article, written by Peter Bradshaw.  The ambiguity intertwined in Mary and Elizabeth’s relationship is purposeful.

The rivalry between the two women is complex due to their positions as royals. Another one of Bradshaw’s debatable comments stated, “[Ronan] upstages Robbie, and Robbie’s parts of the film, often lumbered with leaden historical exposition dialogue, especially from Pearce, don’t have the same snap.” I disagree wholeheartedly with this comment. I’m a huge fan of historical fiction adaptations, like Showtime’s “The Tudors” or Netflix’s “Medici: Masters of Florence,” to name a couple. As an avid consumer of historical retellings in media, I think it’s necessary to intersperse dialogue which colors and contextualizes the specific time period. Moreover, the diversity of Ronan and Margot’s scenes offer an insight into how their characters differ as people. For example, Mary follows her heart more than she follows the advice of her counselors. In contrast, her tactical cousin is albeit trapped in the cautious proceedings of her stiff-collared court.

In several scenes “Mary Queen of Scots” communicates that Elizabeth I experienced paranoia regarding the future of the English throne. As A.O. Scott writes in his review for the New York Times, “Elizabeth becomes increasingly brittle and remote,” further aggravated as the audience witnesses her private battle with growing anxieties. With no husband, no children and no named heirs, Elizabeth I’s male advisors treat her like a ticking clock.

Mary wants Elizabeth to acknowledge her as successor to the English throne, but Elizabeth refuses to legitimize her cousin’s claim. Watching the two women struggle to maintain dominance (in a quite literal game of thrones) casts a light upon the dual security and instability of high court during that particular time period.

I agree with Scott’s assessment of Elizabeth’s character arc, but I disagree with his concluding thoughts saying, “[The movie] looks beautiful and moves swiftly but never quite takes full imaginative flight.” When I sit down to watch a historical fiction film or television series, I do not look for an excessive amount of imagination interwoven into the story. Creative liberties are almost always taken, but I still appreciate attention to details and a respect for accuracy in period pieces. In my opinion, the genre of historical fiction embellishes true events. Too much embellishment is tacky. For these reasons, I am glad “Mary Queen of Scots” stayed on the imaginative ground.  

The last point I’ll counter from Scott’s review stated, “The two queens would have been natural allies — and England and Scotland might have settled their differences — if it weren’t for all the meddlesome men in their doublets and beards.” Multiple obstacles prevented Mary and Elizabeth from forming a real friendship, in addition to the dukes, earls and lords. For example, Mary’s refusal to submit to Elizabeth’s will and relinquish her claim to the English throne created issues for their countries. Elizabeth’s clearly unstable mental health, depicted in several scenes, served as another deterrent to Scotland and England’s possible alliance. It is undeniable that power-hungry, sexist men were one of the obstacles in the way of the queens’ friendship. The two rulers were victims of circumstance; societal expectations and gender norms demanded women to get married and birth children. Mary and Elizabeth were born into power and privilege, but in many ways it cost them their freedom.

Doménica Castro is a third-year student majoring in communication studies with a minor in Spanish. DC874612@wcupa.edu

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