This Woman's Work
As Britain buckles and breaks under the strain of Brexit – a moment of torturous political upheaval that’s brought tensions between the home nations, chiefly England and Scotland, into sharp focus – the prospect of an historical drama that stokes old rivalries and explores historic schisms on the issue of sovereignty is about as welcome as a shared hotel room with Alex Salmond.
Haven’t we been here many times before, not least with that Nazi propaganda film given belated release, Mel Gibson’s Braveheart? Haven’t we seen colonial grievances mercilessly exploited in the name of historical investigation, only to exit soiled, as though birthed from Tommy Robinson’s backside?
But these were phallocentric retellings, privileging brinksmanship, violence and politics above all else – history as understood by the heteronormative patriarchal order, or the film industry as it’s sometimes known. Mary Queen of Scots is the story of two women – Mary, obviously, and her rival for those divinely ordained sovereign credentials – Elizabeth, the Protestant Queen of England, who just by virtue of having lived in said land her whole life and having ascended to the throne uncontested, imagines she has a superior claim.
Initially, this female directed history lesson from Josie Rourke, looks to be ploughing its furrow using familiar tools. Mary, young, sexually active, maternal and grounded in the values of home and hearth, is contrasted with her cold and uptight cousin – a woman prepared to contract out her lover for political advantage, who barely cracks a smile, insists on absolute deference, has a dour group of ladies in waiting (unlike Mary’s giggling girlfriends) and is prepared to wage war to protect her position; eschewing Mary’s more conciliatory backchannel approaches. Ah, we think, here we go – the compassionate Scots pitted against the cruel and callous English. Mary’s even LGBT friendly, for God’s sake. What hope has Liz got in gaining audience sympathy against this forward-thinking 21st century proxy for benign Scottish nationalism?
Thankfully though, Mary Queen of Scots has bigger fish to fry than age old arguments about warring kingdoms. As it progresses, both Queens become victims of their respective Courts – men vying for political supremacy and influence, who, regardless of the imprimatur of hereditary authority, apparently conferred by God – though this, as ever, is a case of whose God and the church he recognises (Mary alone seems to recognise that politics has superseded divine authority when she tells a solider that the dead all end up in the same heaven, regardless of their faith), see the women in charge as deficient vessels to be used and if necessarily removed.
Thus, with the nations styled as sisters rather than enemies, and the women in charge, reluctant and dutiful defenders of respective faiths and succession interests, the movie’s real villain – men, is pushed to the forefront. Mary, conscious that only an heir will consolidate her position, not least because Elizabeth has none, endures reluctant impregnation – an act of grubby and mechanical sex, marries a man she doesn’t love to frustrate the machinations of Elizabeth’s advisors, and fights hard as her brother attempts to force her abdication. Elizabeth meanwhile, who, conscious that her gender makes her vulnerable in a sausage court, has sacrificed her womanhood and her happiness to underwrite her status as living figurehead. In both instances the women are forced to put their own desires and instincts to one side, effectively ceding control of their bodies and their futures to their thrones, lest they be picked off by the manoeuvring courtiers, the men who plot by candlelight, as though in a Caravaggio painting.
How, then, does the film ultimately reconcile all this with Mary’s execution? By skipping over the political antecedents altogether, suggesting, in a caption no less, than Elizabeth ultimately made a pragmatic choice to listen to those dripping poison in her ear, and agree Mary was responsible for the papal plots to kill her and take her crown. This is given a tragic aspect. Elizabeth, delicate and lonely in Margot Robbie’s hands, the woman who wanted to embrace her cousin’s heir and reconcile the two kingdoms, is forced to be ruthless in a masculine world of suspicion and political wrangling. Mary meanwhile, portrayed as vacillating between good soul and entitled monarch by a confused Saoirse Ronan, goes down as a martyr to her faith and stolen crown. It’s hard to feel sympathy with either woman on that basis, but Mary Queen of Scots works as an exploration of women born to power, struggling to survive in a ruthless patriarchal order.