John Guy's book, 'My Heart is my Own: The Life of Mary Queen of Scots', also known as 'Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart' (2004) starts with one of the great cinematic thrills of history – the moment when Mary Queen of Scots stood on the scaffold in a stately, long black satin dress and allowed her executioners to strip her down to her underclothes, which were bright red. 'Gasps of shock ran through the courtroom.'
Theatre director turned film director Josie Rourke bases her first film, 'Mary Queen of Scots' (2018) on Guy's book. Accordingly, its opening scene sees Mary stripped and resplendent in vivid red, place her head on the block – to gasps from the attendant courtiers.
'Mary Queen of Scots' spares us the grisly facts of Mary's beheading (three whacks to sever her head which, held up by the hangman by its red fringe, dropped, revealing its near-baldness). Unfortunately it also spares us most of the drama that might explain how this most unfortunate of queens came to have her head chopped off at the age of 45 after 19 years imprisonment.
Rourke's film is set mainly between 1561 and 1567, when Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan) personally ruled Scotland and the Queen of England was her cousin, Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie). Mary returns from France in 1561 to reclaim the Scottish throne. She is a Catholic. Protestant Elizabeth and her Protestant courtiers worry that she may claim the English throne too. Mary has Tudor blood as well as Stuart: her grandmother was Margaret Tudor, sister of Henry VIII. Mary inherited the Scottish throne at six days old, but was taken off to France at the age of five to marry the French king's infant heir while others ruled Scotland in her stead. She duly married the Dauphin, becoming Queen of France at 16 and a widow at 18.
In the film's second scene Mary arrives in Scotland from France in a rowing boat from which she and her four ladies-in-waiting disembark wearing spotless haute couture frocks, hair sculpted high in the style of papal mitres – a sign of the kind of film this will be, and that Alexandra Byrne's costume design and Jenny Shircore's hair and make-up could garner awards. This kind of high prestige period drama often does well during awards season.
Mary returns to a nation split in two, between Protestantism and Catholicism. Catholic herself, and now neighbour to Protestant England, she is in a precarious position. The leading party of Scottish nobles is not just Protestant but Presbyterian, led by her half-brother James, Earl of Moray (James McArdle), an ardent Presbyterian and disciple of John Knox. Moray was Regent while she was in France. She lasts just six years as a ruling queen in Scotland: as soon as she produces a son and heir in 1567 at the age of 24 she has fulfilled her dynastic function. Twelve months later she is deposed by the Protestant Scottish lords, and will spend the remaining 19 years of her life in captivity in Scotland and England. Her enemies retain control of her son James whom she never sees again. The treaty James signs with England as the 19-year-old King of the Scots becomes in effect his mother's death warrant.
With a screenplay by Beau Willimon (creator of the US version of 'House of Cards'), much of the historical context of Mary's life is ditched. Unfazed by the Earl of Moray's reluctance to give up his regency to a woman, and undeterred by the misogynistic ravings of Presbyterian leader John Knox (David Tennant, hirsutely enjoying himself), Mary seeks solidarity with Elizabeth. Why not rule side-by-side, 'not through a treaty drafted by men lesser than ourselves'? Flashing back from the moment of Mary's execution in 1587 to her arrival on the shores at Leith a quarter-century earlier, most of the film is set within the two monarchs' parallel courts in Edinburgh and London, where both are portrayed as pawns of entrenched male power.
Because of the parallel court structure of the film, with few exceptions the only people we see are aristocrats and courtiers. This was a source of delight in Yorgos Lanthimos's recent royal romp 'The Favourite' because of its witty script and glorious send-up of courtly life. Here, though, it makes for rather dull viewing: a series of statically staged, if beautifully composed, tableaux – lustrously over-stuffed in the Elizabethan court, dark and cavernous in the Stuart.
The two queens meet only once in the film (and they never met in real life), their conflict played out by envoys shuttling across the border between England and Scotland. The theatrical potential of an imagined meeting between Elizabeth and Mary has been wonderfully realised in Robert Icke's adaptation of Schiller's play 'Mary Stuart', which opened at London's Almeida Theatre in 2016, starring Juliet Stevenson and Lia Williams. At the start of each performance the two actors are randomly assigned the roles of Elizabeth and Mary at the toss of a coin. Everyone on stage then turns and bows to whoever has the role of Elizabeth, a magnificently theatrical device for conveying who holds the power.
There is little of such imaginative direction in the film, though, with its constant cutting between scenes in Scotland and England. Elizabeth demands that Mary marry her own beloved Earl of Leicester, Robert Dudley (Joe Alwyn), to control the Scottish queen in the English interest. Mary says no; then she says yes. Elizabeth suggests another English lord but Mary chooses the Scottish Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley…and so on. In the spaces between such comings and goings the queens discuss their own love lives with servants and suitors. When the two do come together, their meeting is filmed through gauzy curtains, presumably to convey that it is a fantasy. The pair speak in riddles, a ploy that might work on stage but is merely irritating here.
Much of the historical context of Mary's life is traded in for a kind of easy symbolism. Thus, a scene in which Mary is giving birth to her son is intercut with Elizabeth cutting out red paper flowers to create a picture. Several paired scenes follow, charting their progress, the camera switching between the two. After the birth, further intercut shots show a blissful Mary surrounded by bloody afterbirth, whilst childless Elizabeth sits dejectedly, a sea of red paper roses between her open legs.
Ronan and Robbie are terrific actors but are hampered by a script with over-written dialogue and laden with tongue twisters ('If God wills Mary to marry, Mary will marry only whom Mary wills to marry'). Ronan speaks English with an impeccable Scottish accent when not speaking in French with her ladies-in-waiting. This, inevitably, has prompted a flurry of debate about whether Mary would speak English with a French or a Scottish accent.
Myriad murders, marriages and betrayals are played out in the course of the film, like the bloody reckonings of a whole series of the 'Sopranos' but minus the textured character building that would make us care about any of them. Mary is exculpated from most of the skullduggery, while Elizabeth increasingly coarsens, with Robbie transforming from beautiful eligible young queen into pox-scarred sovereign governed by distrust and disappointment. For much of the film, as a result of smallpox, Elizabeth's pocked face is covered in ghostly white chalk, in sharp contrast with an improbably fresh-faced Mary going to the block in 1587, two decades after the end of the period during which most of the film is set, and by this time 45 years of age.
Robbie is grossly underused in the film, partly because Elizabeth is such a sad case, sitting around lamenting her lack of children or lying in bed with Dudley discussing Mary. Many of her scenes are lumbered with leaden dialogue – usually in conversation with her chief statesman William Cecil – in exposition mode. Cecil is played by a silken-tongued Guy Pearce, whose role in the film as explainer of the politics of 16th-century Scotland and England is no substitute for a contextual understanding of the historical differences between the two nations and courts.
While the film aims to score broad points against the sexism surrounding both leaders, it ends up focusing most of Mary's story on the romantic intrigue that dogged her (a love triangle involving the bisexual Darnley, played by Jack Lowden, and court musician David Rizzio, played by Ismael Cruz Cordova). Mary speaks openly about sex to her handmaidens, and proves to be an ally of her gender non-conforming courtier Rizzio. As a result, in contrast with 'The Favourite', which featured the last Stuart monarch, Queen Anne, the only laughs in 'Mary Queen of Scots' are unintended. When Mary comes upon Rizzio, dancing in her candle-lit castle, dressed in a ball gown, she tells him: 'Be whoever you wish to be with us. You make a lovely sister'. Mary is equally nonchalant when she finds her husband Lord Darnley in bed with Rizzio.
She keeps a racially diverse court, welcomes all religions and is utterly relaxed about gender fluidity. The film thinks itself radical because it shows Mary's menstrual blood. Its ideas of gender and power are simplistic, resting on notions of women's natural solidarity and compassion, and delivering its message of sisterly friendship perverted by men with sledgehammer subtlety: 'How cruel men are', murmurs Elizabeth, advised by Cecil against sending an army to assist Mary. 'Remember, if you murder me you murder your sister and your queen', Mary appeals to Elizabeth.
As an agenda-driven film, 'Mary Queen of Scots' is removed from character development and storytelling to such an extent that we hardly care about the protagonists' fates. Even when Mary is arrested (after another disastrous marriage, this time to the Earl of Bothwell, main suspect in the murder of Darnley – himself involved in the plot to kill Rizzio), removed to England and separated from her infant son – who, as King of England and Scotland, will eventually realise her dynastic dream – she rouses little sympathy. The religious split hovers in the background, while in the foreground Mary and Elizabeth are treated as doomed by their womanhood and squabbling men. Mary's many years of house arrest and her (at least possible) involvement in the Babington Plot to assassinate Elizabeth are totally marginalised.
Last November, a BBC Radio 4 afternoon play was broadcast – a 90-minute adaptation of an unmade film, 'Mary Queen of Scots', scripted by Alexander Mackendrick, featuring Glenda Jackson as narrator and Ellie Bamber as Mary Queen of Scots. Beginning development in the 1950s, the film was ditched by Ealing Studios as too disrespectful to royalty. A revised script (with Gore Vidal and Anthony Burgess) was derailed in 1969.
Mackendrick's original screenplay imagined a kind of Western or 'gangster study': a portrait of a woman trying to survive whilst caught between rival clans battling for power. A film on Mary Queen of Scots by the director of 'The Ladykillers', 'Whisky Galore' and 'Sweet Smell of Success'? That film I would like to see.