Mary Queen of Scots was a woman who wanted power and love and ended up with neither. And although this tragedy played out on one of the largest stages of the 16th century, her story is often relegated to the footnotes under that of Queen Elizabeth I, her cousin and professional nemesis, who’s been portrayed in movies by a royal line of actresses including Bette Davis, Judi Dench, Helen Mirren, Vanessa Redgrave and Cate Blanchett. Yet while cinema has not been as kind to Queen Elizabeth I’s younger cousin, first-time director Josie Rourke’s “Mary Queen of Scots” reimagines the northern queen’s demise as one caused not by her ambitions but by the treacherous men who lied to her and about her.
In movies, as in life, these versions of Mary show her as a devout Catholic whose rule was challenged by the men around her—like those on her council, her second and third husbands and even the men outside her castle. However, much of the movie is dedicated to Mary’s attempts at becoming the successor to the English throne by Queen Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie).
The young widowed Mary arrives back in Scotland from France in 1561, a Catholic claimant to that country’s throne and a proud believer in her additional right to England’s crown, superior to that of the incumbent: Elizabeth I, her cousin and defender of the (Protestant) faith. Mary puts herself under the protection of her dubiously loyal half-brother James, Earl of Moray (James McArdle), and for England her mere presence is an intolerable provocation. It is the beginning of an opaque and deadly strategic confrontation with Elizabeth, something between a duel and also a kind of love affair, or cousinmance, two women who know what it is like to be lonely and surrounded by duplicitous men. Perhaps, like the destroyer’s captain and U-boat commander in a war movie, they have a kind of respect for each other.
This is a heartfelt, serious-minded film about 16th-century power politics from screenwriter Beau Willimon and director Josie Rourke, theatrically conceived, and influenced by Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth (1998).
The movie becomes a story of two leaders bound by sovereign duty, hindered by their gender, pitted against one another for the crown and want of children. It doesn’t always work, but the film makes for an entertaining argument to reevaluate the legacy of Mary Queen of Scots, beyond the time-worn focus on her tragedy.