Sunday, March 10, 2019

Mary Queen of Scots (2018)

Saoirse Ronan as Mary Stuart
Margot Robbie as Elizabeth Tudor
Queen Mary: In my end is my beginning. ~from Mary Queen of Scots (2018)

Queen Elizabeth: May your soul have mercy on mine. ~from Mary Queen of Scots (2018)
In recent years historical dramas have often been vehicles of modernist propaganda, filled with anachronistic themes which do not represent past times as much as they do our own. For instance, feminism as a movement was scarce or non-existent before the French Revolution. Yet every other historical film is loaded with ideas of women's equality which generally did not exist, especially not in the present form. Plus most films are drenched in sex and violence so as to be unwatchable if children are around. So whenever a film has qualities which shine with truth and beauty in spite of everything else, it is like finding water in the desert. Such a film is the recent Mary Queen of Scots starring Saoirse Ronan as the doomed but formidable Mary Stuart. Miss Ronan's portrayal gives insight into Mary and her motives, rather than merely retelling a tragic story. Yes, there are some adult scenes that make the film unsuitable for youngsters. Otherwise it is an inspiring and heartbreaking story about a woman who goes through hell in order to keep her Catholic faith and bear a child.

Based upon John Guy's biography Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart,  the film begins just as the book does, with Mary garbed in red and praying in Latin at her execution. I have repeatedly read accusations about the film's lack of historicity but it is, in my opinion, the most accurate portrayal of Mary's life that I have ever seen. It is the only film in my experience which shows Mary being completely innocent of Darnley's murder and as not having had a love affair with Bothwell. Indeed, the film shows Mary being coerced by Bothwell, as described in Antonia Fraser's biography of Mary. It reinforces what I have long maintained about Mary Stuart. While seen as a romantic heroine, her true life had very little genuine romance. Albeit she had the trappings and pageantry of chivalry, but in the end it was all nothing. With her husband Darnley and her brother Moray working to undermine her, Mary hardly had a chance. The film magnificently captures her courage, determination and desperation, especially in the score. Meanwhile, the beauty of the Scottish countryside provides a searing backdrop for the tragedy.

 Of course, as with all films, liberties are taken. Yes, there were Africans in the British Isles in those days. However, the English ambassador to Scotland was not among them. Neither was Bess of Hardwick an Asian, at least not that I have ever heard. But the superb performances make it all work. Jack Lowden's Darnley is depicted as a "sodomite" but in reality he was a dissolute alcoholic who would copulate with anybody. The character of Darnley is a perfect example of what happens when an alcoholic moves in: chaos leading to both emotional and physical abuse. Also, Baby James was already at Stirling Castle when Darnley was killed. Stirling was the official residence of the heirs of the throne. Mary would visit him there. But after her fall from power she never saw him again.

The film has been much criticized for showing Mary and Elizabeth meeting, which never happened. Nevertheless, it is a powerful scene which distills the tormented relationship between the cousins into a few minutes, showing why one or the other must die in order to have peace. The meeting occurs in a fuller's hut, where bleached linens are hanging up to dry. The two queens converse with each other in a sort of maze, from which they are veiled from each other, until the layers are torn aside. Then they each must face the reality of their individual weaknesses and strengths.

According to The Conversation:
 The dramatic life of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots is a hot topic in popular culture. Josie Rourke’s 2018 film Mary Queen of Scots has reached wide audiences, while the Sydney Theatre Company play Mary Stuart is playing to packed houses. What fuels this interest in a queen who died over 400 years ago?

As the differing treatments of her life in the film and play demonstrate, Mary Stuart is a figure open to opposing interpretations of what it means to be a powerful woman. They explore deeply held cultural anxieties over what might happen if a woman holds the role of head of state, which resonate today. She was queen of France through marriage in her teenage years, then returned to Scotland in 1561 to rule as queen by birth. Her Scottish reign was initially successful, but errors in managing the powerful factions and religious divides of her court and nation led to a series of disastrous events in 1567.

Following the murder of her second husband, Lord Darnley, she quickly married one of his supposed killers, Lord Bothwell. She was then driven from the throne and forced to abdicate. Fleeing to England, Mary sought protection from her Protestant cousin and fellow queen, Elizabeth I. But instead of finding refuge, she was kept under house arrest in England for 19 years, before she was publicly beheaded in 1587 for treason.

If this colourful history were not enough, portrayals of Mary Stuart since the Renaissance have been sharply divided. Catholic defences viewed her as an innocent victim of scheming and powerful men, wholly virtuous and martyr to the Catholic cause. Protestant attacks viewed her as an adulterer and murderer, driven by private passion to abandon her realm. This polarised view of Mary’s reign has persisted over centuries. Biographers in the 19th century, such as Agnes Strickland, used the queen as an example of why women’s “feminine” qualities conflicted with their ability to exercise power. They were seen as too weak, or too irresponsible. Mary’s short and disastrous life as queen of Scots is often contrasted with Elizabeth I’s long and peaceful reign, making Elizabeth the exception rather than the rule. (Read more.)
The film cogently encapsulates Mary's three principal goals: to unite Scotland under her crown in spite of the religious differences; to become the recognized heir of Elizabeth of England; to beget a male heir. But due to the enmity of John Knox and the other Protestant leaders, Mary's tolerance is met with hatred for her Catholicism. Mary's intriguing to be recognized as heir to the throne of England is playing with fire. Mary has a claim to that throne in her own right, which makes her a threat to her cousin Elizabeth, in spite of the fact that both women want a sisterly relationship. And Mary's son, whom she passes through hell to conceive and bear, becomes a usurper in the hands of her enemies.

A constant theme in the film is the barrenness of Elizabeth compared to Mary's fruitfulness. In this aspect the film has much to say to modern women. Elizabeth chooses success as a ruler at the cost of being a wife and mother. Mary risks everything to become a mother and loses everything, but at the moment she dies she is consoled by the thought of her son bringing peace and union to Britain. Bringing a child into the world is shown as being worth every sacrifice and suffering.
Mary Queen of Scots
Mary Stuart in the white mourning of a widowed Queen of France
Saoirse Ronan as Mary Stuart
More about the film, HERE.
Soundtrack, HERE.

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