By Isobel Roach
In August 2018, pictures of Margot Robbie circled the internet – these weren’t glammed-up red carpet snaps, but rather a few paparazzi sneak shots taken on the set of the actor’s first foray into the period drama: Mary Queen of Scots. Complete with a prosthetic nose, smallpox-scarred skin and a glaringly white powdered face, it was clear that Robbie’s rendition of Queen Elizabeth would be as real and unpolished as the Tudor queen herself.
The brainchild of director Josie Rourke, this historical drama following the return of Queen Mary to the Scottish throne is concerned with reclaiming female history in all its grit and splendour. Rourke tells the story of Mary’s struggle to retain power in a violently patriarchal world in a way that does not sacrifice its leading character’s femininity. Despite the swords and battles and political alliances we expect from a Tudor drama, Mary Queen of Scots is a film about women. In this way, Rourke’s movie feels strangely timeless – contemporary, even, in this post-#MeToo world. Feelings of helplessness and frustration stalk the film as Mary faces off against a stream of male antagonists. Their virile hatred is best put by wayward minister John Knox (David Tennant), as he proclaims to a crowd of dissenters, “we have a scourge upon our land: it is a woman with a crown”.
Saoirse Ronan is excellent as the young Queen Mary, showing us her tenderness in private and the cool determination she adopts when falling into her royal persona. Ronan’s scenes with Mary’s entourage of ladies-in-waiting are particularly touching, revealing the incredibly close bonds of female friendship that the history books tend to gloss over. Sex and violence are a visceral presence in Mary Queen of Scots, and Ronan approaches Mary’s traumas and desires head on in her portrayal. This is reflective of Rourke’s self-proclaimed desire for the project to be truthful about female bodies. Mary bleeds, cries and gives birth with a sense of realism and honesty that the prim-and-proper world of the period drama usually shies away from.
Playing Mary’s English counterpart, Robbie inhabits a grave and conflicted Queen Elizabeth, no less compelling than Ronan. Rourke touches on Elizabeth’s inner turmoil with sensitivity and depth, offering an intimate perspective on a ruler caught between pride and sentimentality, love and ambition, even masculinity and womanhood.
This is a film best summed up by that final contradiction; Mary Queen of Scots asks if a woman could survive and rule in the early modern world without becoming something of the male Other. Perhaps this question has no certain answer, but Rourke’s film is essential viewing for those interested in the nature of womanhood – whether it be in the sixteenth century or the twenty-first.