A Catholic queen is surprisingly woke in ‘Mary Queen of Scots’

Photo: Focus FeaturesPhoto: Focus Features

It is a bit ironic that John Knox, a founder of the Scottish Reformation—and an orator, slanderer and vilifier of all things “papist” —would be one of the more energetic elements in a movie about a doomed Catholic monarch and mother of England’s first Stuart king. It is also a bit odd that “The Favourite,” a film that seems to be delighting both audiences and critics right now, is about Queen Anne, the last of the House of Stuart. Aren’t royal lines supposed to lose potency as the centuries clip by?

The messages of “Mary” that can be applied to our own age are received early, and often.

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To be serious—which is not entirely easy concerning “Mary Queen of Scots”—the film stars the Irish actress Saoirse Ronan as the Scottish ruler and the Australian actress Margot Robbie as her English cousin Elizabeth I and seems destined to puzzle, bore and perhaps irritate audiences mostly because it has no sense of dynamics. Josie Rourke, an established theatrical director in the United Kingdom, is making her big-screen debut with a problematic story. To truly understand it, one needs to have at least a cursory knowledge of the baroque lines of succession that made Mary a threat to the English queen. (Being the granddaughter of Henry VIII’s elder sister, some believed, made Mary Stuart the more rightful heir to the throne than Elizabeth. Being a Roman Catholic presented other problems.)

But Rourke is less interested in the politics of Mary’s case—or, certainly, any of the lingering theology surrounding it—than she is in the gender-based conflicts of her subject’s life. Or, to be more blunt, Mary’s betrayal by every man she knows. Knox, played venomously by David Tennant, serves as a Greek chorus, adding interspersed insults to the injuries Mary suffers in the throne-room and the bedroom and the birthing chamber—the scene of a particularly overwrought slo-mo sequence that results in the future James VI and I of England, Scotland and Ireland. Sisterhood is a central theme, and that it can’t ultimately save Mary is a further indictment of patriarchy, as painfully obvious as that gets to be.

The screenplay certainly gives the benefit of the historical doubt to Elizabeth I.

The screenplay, adapted by Beau Willimon from John Guy’s book Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart, certainly gives the benefit of the historical doubt to Elizabeth I, who—spoiler alert—ended up having her relative’s head cut off. But Elizabeth does feel a kinship with, and ultimately a respect for, the besieged ruler who shares her island. “We could do worse than to place her on the throne of England,” Queen Bess tells her counselors, who are never going to let that happen. Neither is Elizabeth, really, nor the people in Mary’s immediate vicinity, who include the Earl of Bothwell (a terrific Martin Compston), the Earl of Lennox (Brendan Coyle) and even her brother, James, the Earl of Moray (James McArdle), an eely character to be sure.

The two lead actresses deliver compelling, even moving performances. Ronan milks as much heroism as she can out a character who is largely viewed, historically, as a victim. Robbie, who gradually disappears—as Elizabeth apparently did—under a mask of lead-white makeup, violent red wigs and the scars of smallpox, has the more powerful role, though a climactic scene in which the two rulers face off provides quite the potent performance by both.

Overall, though, Rourke fails to make the movie dramatically engaging because she gives equal dramatic weight to everything—the fate of nations, the act of childbirth, Elizabethan sex and even the presence in Mary’s entourage of a gay attendant, Rizzio (Ismael Cruz Cordova), who is the beneficiary of Mary’s rather precociously liberal worldview. “Be whomever you wish with us,” she tells him, exhibiting a politic of generosity that apparently knows no limits. “You have not betrayed your nature,” she says consolingly, after Rizzio gets caught sleeping with her new husband, Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden), who is not only a Stuart, but one of those people the vitriolic Knox keeps railing about. The messages of “Mary” that can be applied to our own age are received early, and often. But the movie’s efforts to be woke may ultimately put some audiences to sleep.

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J Cosgrove
6 days 10 hours ago

Did you know that Henry 8th's sister Margaret got a divorce approved by the pope? Did you know that Catherine of Aragon married Arthur, Henry's older brother and designated heir but claimed the marriage was never consummated after Arthur died. She used this claim to prevent Henry from getting a divorce from her thus sending England on a path to Protestantism. Supposedly the Bible said in one part that one was not to marry his brother's widow. But in another part it said it was good to do so. Nearly everyone was corrupt in those days. Does "woke" imply corrupt?

Jeanne Devine
5 days 10 hours ago

Maybe annulment and divorce amount to the same thing nowadays. Back then, only an annulment could free one to marry again, and that's what the Tudor royals were holding out for. Catherine wasn't responsible for the English Reformation; Henry was. He could have chosen to allow their surviving child, Mary, to become Queen after him, and she eventually did in 1553. Meanwhile, however, he had broken with the Catholic Church, eventually fathered the longed-for son (who died at 16) and had 5 more wives. Corruption knows no time limits; it's with us now as much as it was back then.

John Mack
5 days 10 hours ago

The pope had granted a divorce--whatever you want o call it--to King Philip the Fair of France, Henry VIII's good friend. The Catholic church in France was in all practicality under the control of the King (Gallicanism). That's all Henry wanted, but Katherine's uncle, the Holy Roman Emperor, threatened to attack the Papal States and imprison the pope if the pope granted a divorce against his niece. In addition to the threat from Emperor Charles, the Vatican could fall back on the argument that England, unlike France, was technically a vassel state of the pope. On church governance the who's right and who's wrong of the situation was quite murky. P.S. Henry had put forth Cardinal Wollesley (married, of course, like 27 of the 29 English Catholic bishops who did favor keeping union with the pope) as his candidate for pope. That did not work out. In fact "Jack and Jill went up the Hill to fetch a pail of water" was a disguised Catholic mockery of Henry, Wollesley, and the divorce issue. Jack is Wollesley; he failed to secure the papal crown. Jill is Henry; his plan to get his divorce from Pope Wollesley collapsed. The pail of water is the pope's blessing on Henry's divorce.

J Cosgrove
5 days 8 hours ago

It was Catherine's nephew, Charles V, who was the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. Henry was aligned against Charles when he wanted the divorce and Charles had the Pope essentially a prisoner. So it wasn't going to happen. Previously Henry was an ally of Charles but switched sides. I am sure Catherine wasn't pleased by the switch. Henry seemed to have testosterone problems and constantly wanted to be a player in European wars as well as wives.

J Cosgrove
1 day 14 hours ago

I was just pointing out the irony of Catherine's stand. Her nephew was the most powerful man in the world at the time and essentially held the Pope a prisoner. In no way do I defend Henry and what he was and what he did. But if Catherine had not opposed the divorce/annulment England would not have gone Protestant. Henry really didn't want Protestantism but Cromwell and Cranmer did and he was in their power. In less than 50 years Catholicism was at best a marginal religion in England as various forms of Protestantism formed. As always it was about money and power. Mary, Queen of Scots, who was Elizabeth's cousin was hardly a worthwhile person.

J Cosgrove
1 day 14 hours ago

Without all of Henry's shenanigans we would not have had the Industrial Revolution so soon and we today may still have been in a feudal society. Catholic Europe was opposed to material progress for the poor which makes it so ironic that today's Church makes a big deal out of helping the poor as they oppose the main way poverty is being eliminated from the world.

Orlando Kramer
6 days 10 hours ago

Anyone who knows that The son of marry who became James I of England in also VI of Scotland because of the death Elizabeth in 1603. routerlogin.io

Crystal Watson
6 days 4 hours ago

I saw the 1971 version of the film with Vanessa Redgrave and Glenda Jackson. The politics of the time were brutal, especially for women.

Jeanne Devine
6 days 3 hours ago

Every drama about Mary Queen of Scots shows her meeting with her cousin, Elizabeth. Never happened, but makes for great theater. I'm surprised the movie is supposed to be based on John Guy's very sober history of Mary's life. It did a great job of putting her in perspective. She married the wrong men, trusted Elizabeth when she shouldn't have, spent almost half her life as a prisoner, never saw her son as he grew up, and finally suffered a brutal, botched execution. Tragic indeed. Only consolation was that her son grew up to inherit both kingdoms, which she never knew.

Eddy LeRoque
5 days 13 hours ago

You need to google "Death Knell for John Knox" at the Tate Museum by the Scottish artist John Bellany. It was an eye opener on so called reformers. The net effect of "reformation " is an openly atheist Scotland, atheist Prussia and the Southern Baptist Convention closing 1-2000 churches a year. Not a good spiritual investment

Crystal Watson
5 days 11 hours ago

John Knox seemed like a creepy guy, but he was the founder of the Presbyterian church, and this country was in part built by Scotch-Irish Presbyterians, some of them becoming US presidents. Presbyterianism puts emphasis on the bible, which is something Catholicism should do more of.

John Mack
5 days 9 hours ago

The real effect of Prebyterian Calvinism was its emphasis on agency. Its doctrine of Pre-Destination shoved aside the Catholic concern with "getting to heaven" sonce thopse getting there and bot getting there was already decided and no amount of piety, Confession, repentance for sins or good works had any effect on one's salvation. Calvinism substituted as church motivation first your worship of God in all His glory and secondly your acting as an agent in this world to do good works for the greater glory of God (not for your salvation). The activist culture that resulted from this ethos not surprisingly built the first non-profit corporations in the USA and produced men who felt destined for leadership "for the glory of God." Another motivational response was a lust for achievement, and the wealth that would come from achievement. At Calvinist Harvard the students were lined up according to the wealth of their fathers. That wealth was supposedly an indication of how much the father had acted in earthly matters "for the glory of God." P.S, Both John Calvin and Ignatius Loyola, contemporaries, studied at the same Catholic seminary in Paris. They were not there at the same time but studied under the same professors. Ignatious chose "For the Greater Glory of God" as the motto for the order he founded. One of his favorite sayings was "Pray as if everything depends on God. Act as if everything depends on you." Perhaps the most influential Calvinists in modern US history were the Dulles brothers. One of them made the CIA the instrument of activist holy war (the cold war). That Dulles ruled as Presidents came and went. Of course Avery Cardinal Dulles at Fordham had as his father one of those Dulles brothers.. When t6he Soviet givernment collapsed the people at the CIA wandered the halls in grief, many crying inconsolably. Their whoe theology of good vs evil collapsed. But then cam along the holy war against the Islamic fundamentalists and any Muslim government the US happened to condemn when it threatened to abandon the petrodollar or fell out of line with the US money driven alliance with Saudi Arabia.

Crystal Watson
5 days ago

Most Presbyterians in the US don't follow predestination, but that idea is no more weird than the Catholic idea that you can buy your way into heaven through indulgences, which Pope Francis hypes, with ritual acts like passing through a jubilee door.

John Mack
5 days 9 hours ago

Elizabeth's offer to make Mary's Protestant son the heir to her throne and Mary honored as a Queen Mother was sensible, given that England--Parliament, nobles, people--would not tolerate a Catholic monarch at that time. And, as the article points out, Mary always put her fate in the hands of a man. Elizabeth never did, and she knew that Mary would prove herself in England as an inept political maneuverer again, probably precipitating an English civil war (to which the English, given its history, had developed a strong aversion). Elizabeth agonized over having Mary executed because she was still medieval enough (and certainly self-interested enough) to believe that it was sacrilege to kill a monarch ordained by God. Only later did the Catholic Jesuit Cardinal St. Robert Bellarmine make the morally justifiable case for killing a monarch; his treatise was a favorite of the English Puritans. As far as who was more legally entitled to the throne the remaining Plantagenets, Catholic until the 1800's, had the strongest case against both Tudors, Elizabeth and Mary Queen of Scots. But they were smart enough to stay out of it and thus keep their titles and their estates. The current Plantagenet heir lives in a typical suburban house in Australia. Perhaps a child of his will be appointed Governor General at some point, lol. The original Tudor''s claim to the throne was a matter of power, not legality.

Jim MacGregor
5 days 8 hours ago

I was impressed to see both Elizabeth and Mary interred with apparently equal elegance in Westminster Abbey. 😇

Phillip Stone
5 days 5 hours ago

Fiction, tis just fiction, for a' that

Andrea Campana
3 days 13 hours ago

What could we possibly learn from the authentic Mary, Queen of Scots to be applied to our lives today. Don't trust English Catholic nobles? Don't marry your husband's murderer? Don't send messages to your friends in the bunghole of a beer barrel? Can't think of a single thing. Some things are better left in historical context.

sheila gray
2 days 13 hours ago

My mother’s name was Mary Elizabeth Stuart. My daughter has red hair and blue eyes, which is the rarest genetic mutation in the world. Approximately 3 Million people on earth have red hair and blue eyes. Most “gingers” have brown eyes... If Mary Queen of Scots was anything like my Mom, she loved her family with a fierceness never seen on Earth before. And my son’s name is Jamie!

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