“Mary Queen of Scots”: A Tale of Two Queens

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“A woman is like a tea bag—you can’t tell how strong she is until you put her in hot water.” –Eleanor RooseveltAnd like former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, both Mary Queen of Scots and Queen Elizabeth I exhibit unbelievable strength and fortitude during difficult political times. In Josie Rourke’s “Mary Queen of Scots,” challenging political conflicts bring out the best and the worst in both female rulers.

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“Mary Queen of Scots” explores the turbulent life of the charismatic Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan). Queen of France at 16 and widowed at 18, Mary defies pressure to remarry. Instead, she returns to her native Scotland to reclaim her rightful throne. But Scotland and England fall under the rule of the compelling Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie). Each young Queen beholds her “sister” in fear and fascination. Rivals in power and in love, and female regents in a masculine world, the two must decide how to play the game of marriage juxtaposed against female independence. Determined to rule as much more than a figurehead, Mary asserts her claim to the English throne, threatening Elizabeth’s sovereignty. Betrayal, rebellion, and conspiracies within each court imperil both thrones—and change the course of history.This film of two strong, independent royals interestingly coincides with 2018 being deemed ‘The Year of the Woman’ and a surge of female empowerment evidenced in the US 2018 Mid-Term elections where an unprecedented amount of female candidate ran and won federal and local offices. Though female empowerment during the Elizabethan era rested almost solely in the province of male sovereigns with women mostly being benign consorts who helped bring wealth and power to the throne, Mary Stuart and Elizabeth Tudor, respectively Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I, were decidedly different, having inherited their thrones because of a lack of male heirs. (At that time, England and Scotland were two separate kingdoms.)

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Related through their ancestor Henry VII, though divided by religious affiliations—Mary being a devoted Catholic and Elizabeth a confirmed Protestant—both Mary and Elizabeth wore their respective crowns in a man’s world. And Josie Rourke highlighted this struggle—whether factually or fictionally—brilliantly in this film.

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Rourke also managed to take the well-known historical fact of Mary Queen of Scots’ struggles with her throne and with Elizabeth I and inject a modern sensibility into a film that could have been just another dusty journey down a historical path. Rourke’s infusion of modern elements includes diverse, multiracial casts with black ambassadors and aristocrats, as well as Asian and Latin courtiers. Initially this mélange of diversity was a bit offsetting, but after a short time, due to the incredible script and acting chops of the cast, the cast diversity began to actually add to the film.You cannot talk about historical dramas without looking at the costumes. Oscar-winning costume designer Alexandra Byrne was historically accurate and revelatory with her costume choices in this film. Understanding that bold color was a luxury that even most royals didn’t have access to, Byrne attired the cast, for the most part, in the neutral colors of black, grey, white, with some occasional blue tones in for good measure. Only Queen Elizabeth I’s costumes exhibited a small injection of bold color. Byrne also did a great job with Queen Elizabeth I’s headdresses and Mary’s battle attire was both powerful and feminine at the same time.

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Costumes and multiracial casting aside, this movie would have had a powerful impact with the well-skill abilities of the two main characters. Audience members will readily sympathize with Mary’s (Ronan) almost insurmountable task of ruling a divided Scotland, and the many obstacles to her sovereignty. And Robbie skillfully demonstrated Elizabeth’s transition from a young female ruler to a woman who had no choice but to defeminize herself in order to rule the throne.“Mary Queen of Scots” displayed the inordinate sacrifices that both rulers made in order to be sovereigns. And in the end, neither Mary nor Elizabeth won. Mary lost her life, and Elizabeth gave up her right to womanhood.

“Mary Queen of Scots” opens in limited release on December 7.

—William S. Gooch

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