Review: Oscars 2019: ‘Mary Queen of Scots’ is the Feminist Film We Needed
When I walked out of the theatre after a very late night showing of Mary: Queen of Scots, an Oscar 2019 nominee and possible favourite, I found that I had soaked my striped muffler in tears. The mawkishness shocked me; not because I wasn’t liable to let a good tear or two roll, after an impassioned movie-watching night or two, but Mary hadn’t seemed particularly mawkish. What had really soaked my muffler was a display on screen that seemed far too familiar to me, too close home. Two female monarchs, lighting up a screen – and conveniently pitted against each other – immediately preys upon the suspicion that they must want each other’s throats.
How 16th Century Patriarchy Mirrors Today
In a strangely personal way then, Mary: Queen of Scots, for me, traversed two alternate, but parallel realms – a 16th century universe where stuffy-haired men tried to get women married off in order to control bloodlines, and a 21st century universe where similar motives are at play in myriad cultures – only the patriarchy has better hair and the moves have far more subterfuge.
Without spoilers (although your spoilers for this one are splattered through history), here’s the story Mary largely follows (with a few fictional fabrications) – 18-year-old Mary (played by Saoirse Ronan) returns to Scotland, a widow, after her French husband dies. A Catholic – and a woman – her (natural) claim to the British throne threatens both the Protestant establishment in England, as also her own half-brother who had been regent in Scotland, in her absence.
Queen Elizabeth I (played by Margot Robbie), who’s been ruling England, meanwhile, but is heirless, is pressured by her advisors – almost immediately after Elizabeth’s cousin Mary’s return – to somehow ‘control’ her. “Marry her off to someone we choose” – is one of the most common refrains – and Elizabeth is seen uncomfortably complying although often, totally confused by why she should do all of this – or any of this, really – to a cousin she doesn’t dislike.
Mary and Elizabeth are set up as two women with diametrically opposite personalities – but with one VERY important thing in common: neither actually wants the other’s throne. Mary writes to Elizabeth to let her know that she’s happy to relinquish her own claim to the monarchy – provided the unmarried and childless Elizabeth will sign a diktat to the effect that Mary’s son may rule after Elizabeth’s death. The latter is shown to evince no particular anger at this proposal – but alas, she doesn’t make the rules. The men do.
What follows is a wholly orchestrated cat-and-mouse game between the men on Elizabeth’s side and those on Mary’s, attempting to blindside the other, but only stumbling, stuttering and beheading in the process – even as far cooler-headed but passionate queens such as Mary and Elizabeth look on, with almost tired resignation. It is a resignation that speaks of a realm they inhabit where monarchy, even if it has a female name, is puppeteered by hordes of power-hungry men who’d bid you to do their will.
A Period – and Cunnilingus
There are several beautifully evocative moments about Mary: Queen of Scots – most of which can be attributed to something as cinematically elusive as the ‘female gaze’. First-time director Josie Rourke’s camera doesn’t aim to titillate the male gaze; it doesn’t zoom in on thighs and breasts, ‘tease’ with hints of skin and document fake orgasms.
In one particular scene, Mary’s soon-to-be-new-husband lifts layers of skirts and begins to go down on her. The cunnilingus – and Mary’s look of absolute, unadulterated pleasure is a stark contrast to historical perceptions of female monarchs who are expected to sacrifice everything – mostly, bodily pleasures – to acquire even a semblance of what male monarchs enjoy.
At the same time, Ronan/Mary’s marrying for pleasure and passion is contrasted with Robbie/Elizabeth’s, who has chosen not to marry because she thinks she’ll be able to “live like a man” in order to be taken more seriously. It is a contrast offered by Josie Rourke without judgement – quietly showing you two sides to patriarchy: damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
In yet another powerful scene, Mary – during a frivolous session of giggles and conversations with her handmaidens – rises from her stone stool to reveal a large crimson stain on her behind. One handmaiden says, “You’re early” and deftly gets her out of her white dress. A rag is dipped into a basin full of water and the insides of Mary’s legs washed. The blood runs freely, making swirling shapes in the basin – and on a cinematic canvas, previously unused to seeing a period in a period film, quite so vividly before.
Mary waltzes through the film, shouting down anyone who tries to mansplain to her – even as this turns her courtiers (all men) against her, and Elizabeth speaks softly but assuredly, similarly dismissing opinions she doesn’t agree with but feeling compelled to comply. Their sense of self is supreme, despite their knowledge that they are two lone women in a chess set dominated by men and will be used as pawns.
What is remarkable about the film’s writing, is that you remain certain till the tragic end that they never really considered each other enemies.
What if the Two Queens Had Truly Met?
The film seems to be teasing a meeting between the two since the very beginning – and we finally get one, minutes before the denouement. This moment is not documented in history, and historians have decried its authenticity – but creative liberties must allow for a moment so beautifully enacted by Robbie and Ronan. Elizabeth, whose face is pockmarked by small pox, has held a certain fascination for Mary’s ‘beauty’ that she has seen through portraits over the years – but has never reviled her for it. Mary has yearned for Elizabeth’s position of authority – but wouldn’t scheme against her to get it.
The cousins’ meeting escalates from mutual admiration to an exchange of angry imprecations, as each asserts that the other is better off.
Yet, both women – and you, in the audience – come off the meeting, assured that if this were a different world – a world where women could make their own rules – Queen Elizabeth and Mary, Queen of Scots would be comrades and sisters. Rourke uses history to tell you this: in a letter Mary supposedly wrote to Elizabeth, she says: “And let God be my witness, I honour [Elizabeth] in my heart and love her as my dear and natural sister”.
Hard not to let the tears fall after that one.