*. I’ve written notes on a lot of movies about the Tudors and I can probably sum up a bit here. What makes this easier is the fact that Mary Queen of Scots is a typical Tudor movie in most if not all ways. Let’s look at a list of these then.
*. (1) Given that the Tudors themselves were keenly interested in propaganda (what we’d call their “brand”) the Tudor myth is as old as the family itself. So a big part of any Tudor movie has to do with romanticizing actual people and events. This means liberties abound. I think the first thing I noticed here is that Mary was speaking with a Scots accent. Well, because she’s Queen of Scots! But she’d been raised in France.
*. As in every previous Mary Stuart movie we keep the highlights and just elide a lot at the end. Things start off with Mary arriving in Scotland, then meeting and marrying the worthless sot Darnley. David Rizzio is murdered, Darnley blown up, and she remarries to Bothwell. Then there is the (obligatory but fictional) meeting with Elizabeth and . . . she’s taken to the block. That Mary was imprisoned for nearly twenty years is always left out, with the actor playing her never seeming to have aged a bit in the interim.
*. In my notes on Elizabeth I wondered what a historian of the period, if they had one on the payroll, would have thought of its rough take on the personalities and events it described. I was wondering the same thing here but then saw the Tudor authority John Guy being interviewed in one of the featurettes included with the DVD (he also appears in the movie as an extra). Apparently the story here was based on his book on Mary (Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart), where he puts forward the theory that Elizabeth and Mary may have met in person at some point.
*. There is no evidence for this, however, and while dramatists have always made it a centerpiece (it goes back at least as far as a Friedrich Schiller’s play Maria Stuart in the nineteenth century), most of them discount it. On the commentary track director Josie Rourke even states that the meeting the film proper ends with was something “we know historically never happened.” Nevertheless, as she puts it elsewhere, “The whole conception of the film for me was around that meeting. We really wanted to have our version of that famous scene, with these two women looking at each other and being confronted with their choices – their personal choices, their political choices. It’s a moment that’s deeply personal.”
*. Personal, and good drama. As Rourke also puts it (this time on the commentary) she thought it played “like a Renaissance Heat,” with Ronan and Robbie facing off like Pacino and De Niro. I do not like that scene from Heat, or indeed the movie Heat, much at all. There was a lot of build up to that meeting and then when they finally met they had nothing much to say to one another. I think something similar happens here. Really, when you have these big scenes that everything is building up to, how can they not be anticlimactic? You’ve painted yourself in a box.
*. (2) Another aspect of the romanticization of Mary’s story has to do with scenery and costumes, two items that are absolutely essential to a Tudor movie. The latter here are as sumptuous as usual, even with more modern denims replacing coloured tights. I also thought that whoever was responsible for the hair of leads Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie should have won an award (I’d mention a name, but more than twenty individuals are credited as working on hair alone). Throw in Robbie’s Pennywise make-up at the end and you’ve got first-rate design work throughout.
*. As for scenery, I can only say that the Highlands still look great. Every time we leave a castle or palace we’re out in calendar country.
*. (3) Along with romanticization comes modernization. The Tudors have been, for whatever contemporary political reasons, adopted as enlightened monarchs. Well, maybe Henry VIII remains a pig. But both Elizabeth and Mary have been made over in our time into feminist icons, and that is again the case here. Rourke wanted this to be “a great feminist telling of the story,” which is fine for our time but strains credulity. I doubt one of Mary’s ladies-in-waiting would stick with her in exile saying “sisters don’t abandon sisters,” for example. But I guess it’s possible.
*. But would Elizabeth see Mary as a sister, a fellow female monarch fighting against the patriarchy? And would she express a wish for absolution after having betrayed Mary? That seems a lot less likely. After all, Mary was scheming against her (part of the historical elision of her long captivity). Not to mention the fact that the Tudors didn’t accept the idea of their having equals, and they didn’t do empathy. Much as I enjoy Robbie’s performance, I can’t credit this Elizabeth as all. On the commentary track Rourke talks about how she saw Elizabeth as lacking self-confidence, which is about the last thing I would have ever said about her. Especially in her Gloriana days.
*. If you want a great villain for the patriarchy though it’s hard to do better than John Knox (David Tennant). Which also helps balance out the anti-Catholic bias of Shakhar Kapur’s Elizabeth movies with the Protestants here being the treasonous fanatics.
*. Is the fact that Darnley can win Mary over by going down on her meant to be feminist? I mean, good for him, and I’m not blaming her for turning to butter for a boy with a gifted tongue, but does this make him marriage material? Isn’t this thinking with her dick?
*. Also enlightened in ways going beyond feminism are Mary’s tolerance of the homosexuality of her husband and David Rizzio. Perhaps the first thing to say here is that we don’t know if either man was homosexual, but in a modern telling any gossip is going to be taken as certainty when it comes to such matters. Then, when Rizzio is exposed Mary is entirely forgiving in a thoroughly modern way, telling him “You have not betrayed your nature.” A nice thought, but I doubt it’s how Mary Stuart would have seen things. The scene where she tells a foot soldier that if they die they will all go to the same heaven also seemed nicely contemporary to me. I don’t think royals saw themselves as rubbing shoulders with commoners, even in heaven. How she then turns around at the end and calls Elizabeth an inferior is beyond me.
*. But is the propagation of a Tudor myth, any Tudor myth, progressive? I don’t think these stories can be updated in such a way. This is one of the big problems I have with all of these movies. It seems to me that the more progressive or enlightened route to take would be to stick closer to the historical record and show these people as being the monsters they were, and the court as the despicable place it was, instead of giving everyone modern makeovers. I don’t think any of these people should be valorized. The Tudors were bad people in their own day, and they look even worse, if seen clearly, today.
*. In addition to these now conventional ways of presenting the Tudors, Rourke also follows many of the style notes of Kapur in Elizabeth and Elizabeth: The Golden Age. In particular she has the same fascination with shooting through veils and screens. This reaches a climax in the meeting between Mary and Elizabeth that takes place in a barn full of sheets hanging from the ceiling. Which makes for a nice set to shoot, but had me rolling my eyes to the back of my head.
*. It wasn’t well received by critics generally, aside from the lead performances, though I can’t see anything in the complaints about it that couldn’t also be leveled at any of the other examples of Tudormania there have been over the years. Personally I thought the first half was better than average for the genre, while the final act was a disaster, leaving us with Mary, head on the chopping block, making a public service announcement to remain in the Union. I guess we’ll still have to see how that works out.