What’s a queen to do, when marriage means submitting to one’s husband—who inevitably thinks that he, in fact, should wear the crown—but failing to produce an heir renders your whole reign dynastically pointless?
That was an important dilemma faced by the historical Mary, Queen of Scots, and Elizabeth I. The new movie about their relationship poses another: Can there be such a thing as solidarity with a sister monarch, particularly in a time of strife? A better question for all of us, however, would be: In the service of what, exactly?
Mary Queen of Scots, written by Beau Willimon and directed by Josie Rourke, is classic soapy costume drama fun. Everyone looks surprisingly sexy in a piratical sort of way, despite its being set in a notoriously stuffy period for fashion, and it delivers all the heightened passions we’ve come to expect from any tale that touches on any era of the Tudors. They might as well have gone ahead and named it Mary and Elizabeth, preoccupied as it is by the dynamic between two women attempting to rule on a single island, in an era when claims to divine right were being complicated by the religious imperatives of the Reformation—without the added trouble of being the wrong gender to claim any sort of temporal power. The movie even invents a face-off between a fiery Mary, confident to the point of overplaying her hand, and an insecure but ultimately implacable Elizabeth.
Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie are unsurprisingly compelling as the movie’s two queens. This is explicitly a story of two women struggling along through an absolute swamp of chauvinism. They’re surrounded by advisors who think they know better and men they should be able to trust who’d nevertheless snatch away their royal prerogatives given the least bit of opportunity. Mary in particular is failed and betrayed time and again. As a tale of men just bolloxing it up from start to finish, it’s darkly satisfying. You know how the movie is going to end: with Mary losing her head, Elizabeth having signed off on the order. “She thinks she’s a martyr,” one man says to another as they’ve gathered to watch Mary’s execution. If she’s a martyr, it’s to misogyny. Elizabeth, too, is a victim, having given herself entirely to her Crown, a makeup-smeared grotesque rather than an individual woman. They’ve each, in their own way, been sacrificed to men’s discomfort with women in power.
But the movie’s feminist critique begins to unravel if you pull too hard on any one thread. For one thing, the movie often seems to suggest that that Elizabeth was operating out of jealousy at Mary’s beauty and her seeming success at traditional womanhood by producing a child—which is reductive. It’s true that in a monarchy, the state and the person of the monarch are united, and therefore a king or queen’s personality and passions and character play an outsized role in history. But both women saw themselves as divinely appointed, and they weren’t wrong that there were any number of people who’d be happy to topple them from their thrones. To suggest things played out the way they did because Mary was hotter than Elizabeth, rather than the simple fact of their each trying to retain and maximize their own power, is a little cheap.
That piece of simplistic analysis, however, just masks a larger problem. It wants to see these two queens as but women who were subject to the harsh mechanics of misogyny. While there is absolutely no doubt that a queen had to much to navigate in terms of positioning herself as a legitimate monarch, it’s a failing that the movie isn’t particularly interested in the question of what these women want to do with their power, beyond shoring it up, because it is theirs.
Mary is painted as a tolerant, even democratic woman—in her first face-off with her all-male council, she informs them that just as she wouldn’t submit to a political second marriage, she won’t seek to impose a harsh, state-enforced version of her own Catholicism on her subjects. John Knox (David Tennant, in an absolutely incredible beard and wig) shows her nothing but utter contempt; when she boots him from her confidence in response, he spends the rest of the movie stoking Protestant rage against her as a adulterous false monarch in league with Satan, howling about how she’s an unnatural woman. At one point, she tells her charming dipshit of a soon-to-be husband, Lord Darnley, of her domain that she is “but its servant.” She’s frequently depicted giggling with her maids; there’s no hierarchy here. Musician David Rizzio is included among her maids and treated with nothing but love and respect—when he puts on a dress and says he feels more comfortable, she tells him that then her sister he will be.
Elizabeth, by contrast, is domineering. Her ladies are distant and cowed; Bess of Hardwick (Gemma Chan) spends the whole movie watching her as you might a snake. At one point, suffering from smallpox, Elizabeth runs from her room to find her lover, Earl Dudley; at Bess’s urging the maids race ahead, deploying them like flying monkeys, screaming at everyone to get out so they won’t see the queen in such a state.
The effect is to make you like Mary and perhaps pity Elizabeth. What’s the difference to those at the bottom of the pole, far from their courts, though? The movie’s casting was frequently colorblind, which is cool, but it doesn’t change the fact of who this type of movie centers. In her final moments, Mary gets an internal monologue about how her son James will succeed in uniting the nations and bringing peace. But peace for whom? In the centuries following Elizabeth, the rest of the world hardly knew a moment’s peace at Great Britian’s hands. Even Scotland would see several Jacobite uprisings after the Stuarts gave way to the Hanovers.
Queens are big in popular culture right now; as historical figures, they conveniently provide the most source material and retain a great deal of mystique. Queen Elizabeth II is popular both as a sort of global granny figure and a protagonist of The Crown, a television show which is totally enamored of the idea that really, if you think about it, a monarch serves. But that’s the kind of thinking that leads you to eulogize the supposedly long-lost WASP elite without considering, say, the AIDS crisis. You can call it service all you want, but what a queen does is reign. Ultimately, as a portrait of monarchy, The Favourite is more successful than either The Crown or Mary Queen of Scots—telling a story, as it does, of the dark comedy of hierarchy and rule by a single person’s whims.
Mary Queen of Scots is currently playing in theaters.
Correction: This post originally mixed up the numbers of the Elizabeths. We regret/are kicking ourselves at the error.