Mary, Queen of Scots

 

            1561.  Mary (Saoirse Ronan) has lived in France, where she was widowed, and returns to Scotland to claim her throne.  But it's not that easy.  Her cousin, Elizabeth (Margot Robbie), a Protestant, sits on the English throne, and has neither married nor produced an heir.  That would seem to give Mary an advantage, since her royal lineage is more direct, but Mary is Catholic.  And this is the early Reformation, and the Scots don't want to be Catholic, believing that makes them vassals of Rome. (Actually, there were many abuses by the medieval Catholic Church which triggered the Reformation in the first place, but that's only implied here.)  Mary mistakenly assumes that people ought to be free to choose their own religion, but 16th-century Scotland is not ready for that (along with most other Western European countries).  Worse, her half-brother wants the throne for himself.

            In this version, directed by Josie Rourke, Mary also mistakenly assumes that there would be no problem with a member of her court who is openly gay.  She obviously fails to perceive the depth of Calvinist morality before her, even after a thundering oration from John Knox (David Tennant) himself (this may not have been exactly historically accurate, but John Knox was certainly a contemporary firebrand Protestant preacher).  Director Rourke also chooses to sprinkle the royal entourage with different ethnicities, which is also historically unlikely, but in any case, the conflict is clear.  Mary, believing that having an heir would solve everything, rejects the suitor Elizabeth proposes, thinking that he would merely be an English spy in her bedchamber.  (But she fails to understand the importance of his being Protestant.)  Mary decides to choose her own husband, Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden), who, it turns out, is more interested in her gay courtesan than in his wife.  Nonetheless, she does manage a pregnancy, and she even manages to lead her own army in putting down an insurrection fomented by her half-brother, and supported by Elizabeth.  Treachery all around.

            And it gets worse.  The Scottish leaders still have no use for Lord Darnley or his favorite courtesan, and manage to eliminate them both, while insisting that Mary be wed to a proper Protestant Scot.  But even that doesn't appease her enemies, who simply want her banished, and so she runs to Elizabeth for sanctuary.  She grants it, but with conditions, because she recognizes how dangerous Mary continues to be, even in exile.

            This is like one of those existential scenarios where everybody is miserable, nobody gets what they want, and nobody really wins.  We can admire Mary for being a woman of conviction, but she also failed to understand the concept of losing the battle in order to win the war.  She was also so certain of her own divine right that she failed to recognize the danger of others not agreeing with her.  Director Rourke chooses to skip over Mary's long exile and go right to the ignominious end, and it's only in the postscripts that we see the silver lining:  Mary's son, James, does eventually become King, of both England and Scotland.  But “Mary Queen of Scots” is really all about the tragedy of her life and times, and it's not a happy ending.

 

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association