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Mary Queen of Scots – A Feminist Knot

At first blush, the new "Mary Queen of Scots" seems to be about the difficult balance of peace between England and Scotland in the latter half of the sixteenth century.  And surely that is a predominate part of the story.  But billed as a personal war between two queens, one Catholic, one Protestant, is also a bit of a short sell.  In truth, it is many things, as in all true stories, it is complicated.  What the audience most likely will come away with is how difficult it was to be a queen in a man's world. You might be…
Grade B+ - 85%

85%

Historical Drama Done Well!

Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie star in "Mary Queen of Scots".

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At first blush, the new “Mary Queen of Scots” seems to be about the difficult balance of peace between England and Scotland in the latter half of the sixteenth century.  And surely that is a predominate part of the story.  But billed as a personal war between two queens, one Catholic, one Protestant, is also a bit of a short sell.  In truth, it is many things, as in all true stories, it is complicated.  What the audience most likely will come away with is how difficult it was to be a queen in a man’s world.

Mary, Queen of Scots

You might be thinking, ‘But doesn’t the queen have the last word?’  “Isn’t her power all but assigned to her by God?’  Well, those questions which seem so simple on their surface, are best answered with a ‘maybe’.  After all, God is a man, and there isn’t a Scot or an Englishman in the film who wouldn’t remind you of that given the first opportunity.   Mary returns to Scotland after her husband, Francis II dies an untimely death.  While she is only eighteen, she already wields considerable power with her very legitimate claim to both Scotland and England.  Here’s where the history gets a bit tricky, and the film does little to explain the line of ascension to the crown.  Suffice it to say, the man ruling over Scotland at this time is Mary’s illegitimate half brother who is under the English crown’s legal influence.  When Mary returns, order is upset and the noblemen of the Highlands are not disposed to listening to a royal who has lived most of her life in France.  To make matters worse, the influence of John Knox on Scotland’s religious landscape, changed it from Catholic to Protestant, aligning it more closely with England than with France.  And finally, let it not be misunderstood, the Scottish nobles resent having to answer to a woman, and John Knox is at the head of this bigotry.  The pulpit has more influence over the people than Mary could’ve known, and the men in Mary’s life take full advantage of this.

Protestant minister, John Knox

So what of Queen Elizabeth I, daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn?  Well, while in a much more stable environment, she stands against both the wooing and adversarial pursuits of the men in her court.  And while Mary lives by fire and fury, Elizabeth very prudently lives and rules by caution and virtue.  She doesn’t marry because she knows that any man who marries her will have ambitions for the crown, and she shall be deposed and powerless.  Her beliefs prove true in Mary’s life both through her half brother, who wishes to “protect” her, and her two husbands, Henry Stewart Darnley, who deceives her as to his affections, and plots for her crown, and another, James Hepburn, who is the main suspect in Darnley’s murder.  The mess that ensues puts Mary at the mercy of Elizabeth.

Queen Elizabeth I of England

Over the years, Mary and Elizabeth have corresponded copiously through letters and envoys, and the film presents the letters, read by each woman respectively, as the truth in their hearts.  They are the only clue we have to the essence of their relationship with each other.  In the end, it seems as though forces conspired against both women to keep them apart and at odds.  What could have been a great friendship succumbs to the plans of men, the plotters against peace.  Sadly, the only way Elizabeth remains queen is to stay a virgin, and the only way the Stuarts remain in power in Scotland is to appoint Mary’s son, James, at the time a toddler, to the throne.  Of course, his regent is his uncle, Mary’s illegitimate half brother.

Queen Mary giving birth

The film presents the case for their feminist delima well.  Aren’t they capable of ruling?  Yes.  Aren’t they both legitimate to the throne?  Yes.  Aren’t they both bold and confident?  Yes.  Aren’t they both women?  Yes.  It seems their sex is their only impediment, and while Mary embraces her sex, Elizabeth, very smartly denies it in order to remain in power.  It seems that such a fate as theirs in the hands of men, must also be in the hands of mice.

Margot Robbie as Elizabeth, Saoirse Ronan as Mary, and Joe Alwyn as Henry Stewart Darnley star and shine in “Mary Queen of Scots”.  It was written by Beau Willimon and John Guy who also wrote the book, “Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart” and directed by

Josie Rourke.
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Melody Stewart is the founder of act.land and President of iactingstudioskc.com. She is a filmmaker in Kansas City.