Although every scene is set & lit as if by an old master, Mary Queen Of Scots is as contemporary as its scintillating depiction of menstruation, a retelling of an old tale of two queens in the light of a new perspective – strong, elegant and crisp as the north wind. And while the script should have honed itself much more on its way to screen, visually & viscerally it was a joy to behold.
Based on a book by John Guy, penned by Beau Willimon of House Of Cards, this meditation on femininity and power, sexuality and independence, solidarity and rivalry, was directed by Josie Rourke, a woman – and it bloody well shows.
Suddenly my eye aligned with the camera.
Rourke comes from theatre, and that shows, as well. The frame is contained, not sweeping, which is at the same time the film’s power and its flaw. The world of politics is insular and claustrophobic, a bunch of men in rooms, plotting patterns, but the nature of the land these people rule is unbound and fierce, and more of that would have made a difference.
There would be no way of knowing if Queen Mary of Scots [a sassy Saoirse Ronan] and Queen Elizabeth of England [heartbreaking Margot Robbie] seen here are any bit true to life – how could we find out, really, even if we dug deep into all their available biographies? Their portraits throughout history served one political spin or another, and could hardly be considered well-rounded psychological studies of these women in their complexity – perhaps only chronologies of their movements across the chessboard.
But, what I do know is that the way Rourke framed it, and Ronan and Robbie fleshed it out, and flamed it, helped me understand what it must have felt like to have a female form and nature at the time, full of ripe wants and infinite prohibitions. Competing with men for a place of power, while at the same time being a place of power. By virtue of the royal womb.
What connects these two monarchs, and their inner and outer battles, with the modern condition of women, is that in the 21st century, in the worlds of commerce, media and politics, we all at some point are called to become either of those two queens.
In no still of the film could I find both queens in one frame. They share a scene on screen, only to be divided by veils & angles, never together in the same breath. That metaphor is for sure on purpose. And astounding.
Saoirse Ronan’s Mary is proud and humane, ambitious and vulnerable, ruling her realm with natural entitlement, but with a soft touch – deeply sexual, yet pragmatic. She comes to a rural land with all the refinements of the French court, and pays a price for her otherness. As Elizabeth says to her, in their one and only encounter, Mary’s strengths are her weaknesses, in that world no woman gets to play it both ways, animus and anima, and gets away with it without being taken down.
Margot Robbie’s Elizabeth is a tragedy and a triumph, her seethingly clever animus overpowering and devouring her wildly emotional anima, first through sacrifice of love, then femininity, and finally, her deep empathy. She a strategist extraordinaire, her brain a marvel of political genius, but unlike all of her (male) surroundings, she is not allowed to live her soft nature and her steely destiny simultaneously, one of the two must go. So she chooses survival over life. And rules the Isles for 45 years.
It’s still the conundrum.