What is this movie about?
This was the question Wifey and I asked each other after viewing it. Ostensibly, it’s about a great many things, as a great many things were involved with the life of Mary Queen of Scots, the last Catholic monarch of Scotland (you might say, the last monarch of Scotland, period, if you consider her son to have been the first monarch of the United Kingdom, even though it wasn’t called that for another 100 years. You see the problem?), and this film tries to hit on all of them, to give us an insight on her and her tumultuous reign.
And it does a pretty decent job of it. Mary had one of the more colorful lives of 16th century monarchs, and that is saying something. Queen of Scots from the tender age of Six Days Old (Which was completely normal. The Stuarts were an incredibly unlucky dynasty, beset with early deaths and long regencies. Here’s a Reddit Post with the details), she was carted off to France as a child to marry the Dauphin (what that “Reign” show was all about). For about a year, when said Dauphin became Francis II of France, she was both Queen Regnant of Scotland and Queen Consort of France. Then Francis died of meningitis, and back to Scotland she went. This is where the movie picks up.
Finding herself the Catholic Queen of a country gone full Protestant in her absence, she attempted to hoe a tolerant row, and was rewarded with disrespect and conspiracy by the Reformers, especially John Knox, whom the movie finds very quotable for that Whore of Babylon rhetoric that 16th Century Calvinists were so keen on. But that’s just one wrinkle. Like many a Scottish Monarch, she had to deal with the bloody English. Not for the usual Overlording, mind you, but because of The Tudors fathomless inability to reproduce (the dynasty was three generations, and five monarchs, the last three of which were siblings who all died childless) made Mary the heir of her cousin Elizabeth through her grandmother, the daughter of Henry VII of England. At the opening of the film, Elizabeth is still young and could ostensibly still marry and produce children, so Mary’s rhetoric about being the Heir to England has very much an air of imperialist presumption about it. Which is why the film’s attempt to dress these two up as Sister Monarchs torn apart by Teh Patriarchy doesn’t quite work. Mary and Elizabeth were rivals for the same reason that Edward III of England and Phillip VI of France were: dynastic politics and claims to thrones. Their status as women was to a large degree incidental to their political problems.
Allow me to prove my brief. Let’s say that instead of being born a girl named Mary, the only surviving child of James V of Scotland had been born a boy named Robert (I’m saying Robert because to earlier Stuart monarchs had that name, and so as to avoid confusion with all the Jameses), and that from the age of six days old, he reigned as Robert IV of Scotland. What precisely would be different? Granted, he would not have been sent out of the country to marry a Princess of France, but Mary’s sojourn there doesn’t seem to have cast a blight on her legitimacy as a monarch. But he still would have been faced with a similar set of choices:
- To remain a Catholic, as his father had been, or to embrace the Reformed Church.
- To marry someone which would not cause antagonism with England (especially has both James IV and James V were undone by wars with their southern neighbor).
- To do all the other things expected of a Renaissance monarch: manage the nobility and burgeoning middle-class, govern the public fisc, keep order and justice, protect the realm from outside threats, etc.
Being a male monarch might have made this easier, but as the above link of the history of the Stuart dynasty will tell you, it by no means ensured success. Two of the Stuarts were assassinated by nobility (three if you count Robert III’s intended heir), one was killed in a civil war, two as a result of war with England, and one blown up by one of his own cannon. And all of that is before Mary.
But this is an argument for historians. Does the film work? I think so. It doesn’t not work. It’s well-shot; it’s well-acted. The ins and outs of the plot make sense. I just don’t know that it works as well as Outlaw King did. I don’t think it quite packs the emotional punch it wants to. The relationship between Mary and Elizabeth is so distant and political that I have a hard time believing that they really mean anything to each other. Thus, while both Ronan and Robbie seem to absorb the camera when they’re on screen, ultimately I’m not sure why Robbie’s Elizabeth I really cares what happens to her cousin. Mary is nothing but trouble to Elizabeth from the beginning. Why would she be bothered by chopping her head off?
I mean, other than the fact that it completely demolishes her claim that she’s not her father, and perhaps strikes home the object lesson that a successful monarch is obliged to shed blood to keep the throne, as her father, grandfather, and almost any of her ancestors could have told her. Other than that, what does she care?
So while I get the dichotomy the film shows us: that unmarried, childless Elizabeth has a long peaceful reign, but the fertile, overthrown Mary ultimately wins by having a son who unites both realms, I think the film would have worked better if it had either given Mary and Elizabeth equal time, or made their relationship more honestly antagonistic.
But then, history doesn’t fit into narratives that way.
Bottom Line: If you dig on historical pieces, this one is honest and human.