A Queen and No Queen (2018)

The latest entry in the Mary Queen of Scots sweepstakes is an eighty-five-minute breach of taste from the prurient minds of screenwriter Beau Willimon (House of Cards) and first time film director Josie Rourke. Ostensibly from the U.K., this picture has Hollywood’s progressive, not to mention pornographic, gloss spread all over it.

That is a pity for the film is beautifully designed with great costumes, settings, and cinematography. While it’s a Reader’s Digest version of Tudor history, which we can tolerate in a movie, its downfall is in the conception of the characters. This is an exercise in victimology in which the queens, Mary (Saiorse Ronan) and Elizabeth (Margot Robbie), are the victims, while the men, the nobles who surround them, are the oppressors.  

The characterizations are thus stereotypical, displaying none of the brilliant psychological insights found in Stefan Zweig’s Mary Queen of Scotland and the Isles (bookending his magisterial Marie Antoinette). The screenwriters of today, of course, eschew their elderly counterparts in favor of current and controversial tomes, in this case a biography by John Guy. Be that as it may, this script could have written from less than a page of Wikipedia research.

While the basic historical facts are reasonably accurate, the character embellishments are mainly figments of the creators’ ideology. I would be churlish if I carped about the unhistorical variety of ethnic types in the cast so I won’t.

The projection of female empowerment, I suppose, is why we see Mary aggressively copulating with her lethargic husband, an act producing James VI of Scotland, eventually James I of England.

The Italian minstrel David Rizzio (Ismael Cruz Cordova), who rose from mere entertainer to confidant of Queen Mary, is depicted as a flaming queen. He is seen in a sex romp with a bisexual version of Henry Darnley (Jack Lowden), Mary’s second husband and Elizabeth’s cousin. This gives Mary a good excuse to banish him from her bed.

Such an act might be seen as ungrateful, since in an earlier scene he had brought her to orgasm via cunnilingus. And let’s not forget to mention the shot of Mary in a nightgown with a large red spot below her crotch, followed by a reverse angle of her derriere with one of her handmaids rinsing her genitalia. Yes, folks, there is something here for every predilection, a cornucopia of diversity.

David Tennant’s maniacal Protestant reformer, John Knox, always on hand to whip a crowd into a frenzy, is on target. He is easy to hate, and with a very long full beard he looks a dead ringer for a portrait we have of him.

Elizabeth’s favorite, Robert Dudley (Joe Alwyn), sent to Edinburgh as a prospective husband, is rejected by Mary. Her half-brother, the earl of Moray, (James McArdle) acted as regent while Mary was queen in France. William Cecil, Lord Treasurer Burleigh (Guy Pearce), one of Elizabeth’s most loyal subjects, is here merely peevish. None of these actors leave much of an impression.

Mary, untimely widowed at 18, returns to Scotland amidst a nest of vipers. The nobles cannot accept the fact that she was raised a Catholic in France and now presumes to lead a country embracing Protestantism.

The most interesting historical relationship was between Mary and James Hepburn (Martin Compston), earl of Bothwell, here given very short shrift. The full story would have shown that Mary was a murderer which would have negated the characterization the creators wanted her to have. Part of the story, in keeping with the victimhood angle, could be shown: Bothwell’s rape of Mary.

Ironically, instead of despising Bothwell, Mary became his thrall. But he did not return her passion. In fact she would have lost him were it not for his lust for power—he wanted to be the Scottish king. She dangled a crown and that was enough. The strongman who staved off the onslaught of the nobles was now on a string. 

Mary desperately wanted to marry him but Darnley stood in the way. Needless to say, Bothwell was happy to participate in the murder. Darnley was as enthralled to Mary as she was to Bothwell. She had twice spurned him for adding his name to the list of nobles ordering the murder of David Rizzio. A weakling and fool for love Darnley was putty in Mary’s hands. Now for the third time she inveigled him to return to her. Though very ill, he agreed to be brought from Glasgow to Edinburgh on a litter in the dead of winter.

Darnley was brought to a small house near the castle supposedly to recover, but in reality positioned for death. We see him in a room with another man, actually a servant, but here is planted the idea of another homosexual liaison. The next thing we see is a huge explosion. In the film, Darnley is blown out of the building and finished off by a pair of assassins. Barely two months later Mary and Bothwell are married precipitating a national scandal, her abdication, and flight to England seeking refuge. The mouse is now in the lair of the cat.

Elizabeth would have liked to erase cousin Mary as soon as she was captive. But the savvy English queen, well aware of the countless Catholic plots hatched against her over a period of twenty years, steadfastly refused to do so. And she had plenty to fear—war with any or all of the Catholic countries of Western Europe. Her bitterest enemy was Pope Pius V who had excommunicated her. Elizabeth finally gave in to her Privy Council and signed Mary’s death warrant. But not in front of the council as depicted in the movie.

For there is another theme at play: Self-deception. There were several documents on Elizabeth’s desk ready for her to sign. She shuffled the death warrant into the stack then let all sit for a while. When she decided it was time to sign, she simply lifted the lower edges and applied her signature, conveniently “forgetting” that one of the papers was the death warrant.

This allowed her, after the execution, to violently rage at the Privy Council claiming they did not have the authority to carry out Mary’s demise, and thus absolving herself from any responsibility. It would have been interesting to see Robbie play these two scenes for they would likely have been the best in the movie. But, alas, they were not part of the narrative the creators wanted to tell.

History informs us that there was a fall guy in this sordid affair. It could not be one of the long-serving councilors, but it could be Elizabeth’s secretary William Davison. He was brought before the Star Chamber whose decision was to proclaim to Europe that the execution was exclusively his work and that Elizabeth was completely innocent. Davison was fined £10,000, and since he could not afford this huge sum, he was jailed. To be sure, he subsequently received a pension but was forever banished from Elizabeth’s court.

Mary, of course, had deluded herself into believing that she was queen of England.

As a victim Ronan was perfect for the role, but in an honest rendering she would have been miscast. We see nothing of her scheming and evil nature, not to mention that she looked much too young in the later scenes. Robbie, on the other hand, had Elizabeth to a T and would have been even better in a historically accurate portrayal. However, we could have lived without her bout with small pox and its grotesque after effects as it added nothing to her character.

The film concludes with Mary brought to the block and a freeze frame. We are thus deprived of the full ending, a combination of horror and farce. It took three strokes with the axe to sever Mary’s head. To exhibit the head to the onlookers, the headsman unknowingly picked up the head by the wig she was wearing, the close-cropped white-haired head falling to the floor and rolling across the scaffold. Mary’s little Skye terrier then emerged from her long red chemise. When the executioner finally lifted up the head and shouted “God save the Queen,” the Dean of Peterborough added, “Amen! So perish all the queen’s enemies.”  

The execution of Mary Queen of Scots brought relief and happiness to the realm, and Elizabeth, justified in her “non-action,” continued to live as she always had, on the cusp of truth and illusion.