I very much enjoyed the movie MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS. The script was tightly written with much intrigue. I found the acting impeccable, which is what you can often expect with a cast of largely British Isles raised and trained actors.
I have long considered Queen Elizabeth I and her cousin Mary to be interesting, tragic figures in history. Queen Mary’s dilemma of being an ambitious woman in a time and place governed by men in every sphere was made heart-felt and immediate by the frequent closeups and claustrophobic, dark interior scenes throughout the film. Outside shots of Scotland’s beautiful yet spare countryside underscored the sense of isolation and emotional desolation Mary and her cousin Elizabeth surely experienced during their adult lives as female monarchs in a time of such misogyny and ongoing patriarchy.
Large-scale organized religion is mainly presented in the movie as a means of social control over the masses. Mary, being Catholic and a woman determined to think for herself– as she is portrayed in this screenplay at least– is villainized by Scottish Protestant Reformers, an official leader of them in the film referring to her as a “harlot” and other sexual insults. So while Scotland and England had broken free of the behemoth Catholic Church, another religion simply took its place to dictate human thought and behavior. I thought of American right wing evangelicals of today while watching the fire and brimstone preacher pillory Mary and agitate for revolt. In many ways, modern industrialized societies haven’t changed much since 1600s Britain.
Implications about gender and sexuality are believably explored in the movie, with Queen Elizabeth explicitly identifying more as a man than a woman, given that she chose not to marry (which would mean giving up most if not all of her power), did not bear any children, and lost much of her physical beauty after surviving small pox. She basically becomes a caricature of femininity, a drag queen, with her wearing of wigs, white makeup (to cover facial scarring), and grand dresses and jewelry. Identity-wise, all that is left for her is to be a ruler over a thriving kingdom that takes her seriously, like a king.
On the other hand, Mary’s path is less clear and more fraught, given that she is beautiful, clearly fertile, and enters a comparably less stable kingdom than England to rule. And this after being raised elsewhere (France) in a different culture and religion. The movie conveys that old Scottish culture was stark and had less appreciation for continental, soft, artistic sensibilities, as represented by Queen Mary’s gay, cross dressing Italian minstrel she keeps among her ladies in waiting. Like Mary, musician David Rizzio (Ismael Cruz Cordova) does not fit in though tries to within such a precarious context. Rizzio embodies and affirms Mary’s own softness, sensuality, and emotionality, her femininity (as understood in the old traditional sense), while she must quickly harden up for a traditionally masculine leadership role over a country. Mary’s complexity is a believable mix of both soft and hard, the masculine and feminine, fluid and so human really, conveyed through her willful determination to have power over others at all costs while also valuing music, spirituality, and close relationships. Aside from ruling, the young queen’s immediate priorities are God via an unwavering Catholic devotion, her treasonous half brother, her handsome but self-serving and sexually conflicted husband, the devoted and talented Rizzio (the only man around who– though a feminine man– seems to truly love her as a person), her ladies in waiting, her cousin Queen Elizabeth, and, finally, her motherhood (albeit brief) to Prince James. He would later be the king to unite both Scotland and England, fulfilling a deep wish for the Queen of Scots. Mary clearly has a lot on her mind at all times, for which a sense of androgyny comes in handy.
Twenty-four-year-old Irish American actress Saoirse Ronan portrays Mary Queen of Scots with deep mastery. Margot Robbie plays the comparably more hardened Queen Elizabeth just as capably. I could not think of a single actor who was less than stellar in this movie.
I appreciated the downplay of blood-letting and lack of overall violence shown throughout. If you are someone who must have gore and battle scenes, this film is not for you. Emotional expression and conflicting motivations are the primary arc of movement over the entire narrative. There is no reliance on extreme displays of aggression except where doing so cannot be avoided in order to further the storyline. Such action occurs with economy and thought, which is hard to come by in a lot of cinema these days. I highly recommend MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS, especially if you enjoy period dramas.