Mary Queen of Scots (UK, 2018)

Imperious

I know a lot more about Queen Elizabeth I than Mary so I’m not sure how much of what we see in the film is ‘historical truth’ as against ‘dramatic truth’. It’s based on John Guy’s award winning book and this adaptation has a distinct modern focus on gender politics. No doubt gender was an issue in the late 16th century but fortunately, courtesy of the #MeToo movement, it is very much part of our zeitgeist. It’s telling that the film is directed by a woman, Josie Rourke, who describes how she fought to get a period in a period drama. I’m currently reading the excellent post Apocalyptic SF novel Defender, by G.X. Todd, which includes the trope of feral men concerned only with satisfying their appetites for sex and violence. It would be nice to think that, come the apocalypse caused by climate change (coming to a planet you are on soon), that wouldn’t be the case. However, the bile (mostly) males spew on Twitter suggests that male stupidity is fairly common.

That’s certainly the case in Mary Queen of Scots as misogyny is writ large particularly in the superb Ian Hart’s malicious (though evil might be a better word) Lord Maitland who, when asked “How did the world come to this?”,  replies despairingly, “Wise men servicing the whims of women.” Men who think they are by default wise due to their gender still infect the public discourse (see British Brexit negotiators); of course being a woman is no guarantor of wisdom (see Theresa May). The excellent David Tennant’s John Knox reminds us fake news is not a modern phenomenon with his propaganda against the Catholic Mary; the term propaganda came into use at the time:

The term “propaganda” apparently first came into common use in Europe as a result of the missionary activities of the Catholic church. In 1622 Pope Gregory XV created in Rome the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith. (Ralph D. Casey)

We are currently being regaled with lies about Venezuela to justify American intervention.

Central to the film are Soairse Ronan and Margot Robbie’s performances as the monarchs and both are brilliant. The script, by Beau Willimon, teases out the sisterhood of the two showing how they are both trapped by patriarchy: Elizabeth behaves like a man and so survives. There’s only one scene (fiction) with them together, shot expressionistically with flimsy sheets filling the room to show the fragility of their divisions. Ronan sparks with fire whilst Robbie is reined in repression: brilliant acting.

Apparently some are bothered about the colour blind casting; more common in Rourke’s usual home of the theatre. Non-WASP actors Adrian Lester and Gemma Chan feature among others. For those of us who aren’t bothered, this is more heartening zeigeist: let the racists bubble in their anger. They will rant about historical inaccuracy (some will even claim there were no black people in Britain at the time!) but that’s not really their point. All history is interpretation and people of colour can interpret the past as well as anyone.

Guy Pearce deserves a mention as Elizabeth’s closest advisor, William Cecil, and the film is a great counterbalance to Elizabeth (UK, 1998). It’s good to see a loser being foregrounded in a retelling.

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2 Responses

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed reading that review, Nick. Very funny. Was it supposed to be? 😉
    Sandra x

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