If you want to witness the fear of men, give a woman a crown. Josie Rourke’s Mary, Queen of Scots does just this. In presenting a dynamic portrait of the formidable Mary Stuart, it leverages the contrast between the Scottish Queen and Elizabeth I, Queen of England, to illustrate that there is nothing more terrifying to powerful men than a powerful woman.
Where history (read: men) tried to place Mary Stuart and Elizabeth Tudor in opposition, Josie Rourke shows them as two sides of the same coin. The fictional meeting between the two attempts to create a sense of solidarity in the intersection of their parallel lives. Though cousins through their mutual grandfather Henry VII, they refer to themselves as sisters. They are as kindred as their kingdoms, yet defined by their differences: Elizabeth is English, Protestant and childless, while Mary is Scottish, Catholic and mother to an heir who would go on to become the first monarch of both England and Scotland.
Despite the film’s focus on Mary – played by the indomitable Saoirse Ronan – the film repeatedly parallels the two queens. At times, it feels like a meditation on the Madonna-whore dichotomy (Elizabeth I being famously known as the ‘Virgin Queen’), although it seems that neither articulation of power can emancipate its holder from being seen as a mere ‘woman with a crown’.
This is the debut feature film of director Josie Rourke, who has a well-established career as an artistic director. The film’s policy of color-blind casting and Rourke’s fight to depict period blood and female oral sex in the final edit go against the grain of the modern norm of glossing over these aspects of womanhood in male-dominated genres. It makes Mary, Queen of Scots feel subtly, yet frustratingly, radical. The costuming, by designer Alexandra Byrne, reflects this contemporisation. Ruffs and starched tunics gesture to the historical, yet they are made of denim; a modern fabric that transforms well into the unremitting Scottish landscape.
With a soundtrack by Max Richter and choreography by Wayne McGregor, the film is infused with a contemporary sense of urgency. Richter and McGregor previously worked together on Woolf Works, a ballet depicting the life and works of Virginia Woolf. Mary, Queen of Scots, like Woolf Works, fictionalized the life of a historical woman as a way to acknowledge the contemporary. As witnessed in the Kavanaugh hearings, the story of strong women being degraded by men remains depressingly pertinent. Mary is shown as a modern woman who, despite being a monarch, fights the same battles as women today.
In ‘A Room of One’s Own’, Virginia Woolf wrote that, “Women have served all these centuries as looking glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size.” With films like Mary, Queen of Scots, not only does it seem that the mirror is finally turning to reflect the true faces of historical women in their formidable glory, but that modern women in the audience are offered the chance to be equally reflected.
Rebecca Took is a Masters’ Student at the University of Amsterdam. The views expressed here are not necessarily those of The Amsterdammer.