In ‘Mary Queen of Scots,’ a modern feminist spin on the frenemy queens who fought to rule Europe
From the moment she became queen of Scotland at 6 days old, the world never stopped scrutinizing Mary Stuart’s every move — or pitting her against Elizabeth I of England, the cousin whose throne she held a claim to by birth.
Executed at the age of 44, implicated in a plot to assassinate Elizabeth that historians debate to this day, it was her enemies who would write Mary’s legacy. So in the turbulent years of her controversial life, contemporaries wonder, who was the real woman known as Mary, Queen of Scots, and what led to her tragic undoing?
Put another way in director Josie Rourke’s forceful new biopic, “Mary Queen of Scots”: What if Mary and Elizabeth could’ve just sat down together and worked things out?
It’s a notion that occurred to Rourke, star Saoirse Ronan (“Lady Bird”), who plays the titular Scottish queen, and Margot Robbie (“I, Tonya”), who plays Mary’s cousin and political frenemy Queen Elizabeth I.
“You don’t know how many times I thought, ‘If they just called out for coffee at the beginning of this movie … it would have been so different!’” said Robbie with a laugh, reuniting in Los Angeles with Rourke and Ronan for the first time since filming the period drama.
Cheekily, Ronan agreed. “Let’s just go to Starbucks,” she added, channeling Mary, Queen of Scots, by way of a flawless Valley girl accent. “Have a blueberry muffin, sort this ... out …”
Filmed on location 430 years after Mary’s grisly execution, “Mary Queen of Scots” brings the monarch’s story to life with a distinctly feminist aim, focusing on the defining years of the charismatic young Catholic queen with a fierce Ronan in the lead role.
Backed by the producers of the Oscar-winning “Elizabeth” and “Elizabeth: The Golden Age,” which starred Cate Blanchett, and scripted by “House of Cards” creator Beau Willimon, the Working Title and Focus Features film is part political thriller, part chamber drama. It marks the film directing debut of theater veteran Rourke, who also serves as the artistic director of London’s Donmar Warehouse theater.
In its humanistic portrait of the two women, the film suggests that the headstrong Mary and the fearful Elizabeth might have bolstered each other and even found solace in their shared challenges had politics, religion and male advisors on both sides not kept them at odds.
“I think there was so much that they could have met in the middle on if they could have been allowed to sit down together,” said Ronan. “But of course, that was the reason they were kept apart. It served the men around them.”
It was enough of a battle for Mary and Queen Elizabeth I, Europe’s only female rulers, to keep their thrones and their heads; to follow their hearts freely was another matter entirely. The constraints of Mary’s station and the machinations of men, Rourke’s biopic argues, meant her life was never entirely hers to live.
“Marriage, babies, religion,” Ronan mused. “Everything was a pawn. Everything you wore. Everything you said.”
The Irish Oscar nominee had been attached to a Mary, Queen of Scots, project for years, drawn to the idea of playing a rare figure in cinema — a Celtic queen. But when she began diving into research with Rourke at the helm, using historian John Guy’s biopic “Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart” as a guide, Ronan said, “it became incredibly current.”
Married at 15 to the future King of France and widowed three years later, the film finds Mary, age 19, returning home to Scotland to reclaim her throne — only to be drawn into bad marriages, worse husbands and a never-ending series of conspiracies hatched by enemies intent on snatching her crown.
Meanwhile over in England, her cousin Elizabeth struggles with similar anxieties, under pressure to marry and bear a successor to her crown — but remains terrified of making any life choices that might lead to her own deposition.
“Elizabeth’s very early life, living in fear of her life — this is what today would be considered, frankly, child abuse, also putting aside the fact that her father executed her mother,” said Rourke. “If she was alive now she would be in therapy for 14 hours a day.”
“The indivisibility between their sexual and romantic lives, their bodies and power … one of the things that stuns me is that even these two women, who are crown heads of Europe, have to fight for the right to make the choices they want to make with their bodies,” added Rourke.
At first, Robbie admits, she hesitated to take on the role of Elizabeth, whose personal insecurities lead her to tread cautiously with Mary, the only other reigning queen on the scene who by birth has a rival claim to England’s crown.
“I probably wasn’t listening in school because I seemed to skip all the Renaissance period,” the Australian star joked. “Initially when Josie and I spoke about the project I said, ‘I think you should hire an actress who has a degree or a master’s in history, because it ain’t me.’”
“But,” the actress smiled, “she made a really good case.”
Robbie signed on and began devouring historical material about Elizabeth and the Renaissance era. “In my head that’s like, gilded halls and old white-headed people, and it sounded really boring to me — and then Josie starts speaking about it, John Guy started telling me about it and it was just this explosion of color and life,” said Robbie.
“There was the medieval period, grim and gray, and suddenly trade lines open up and there’s music and color and materials and food coming from all over the world — and there are teenagers running empires!” Robbie added. “I just never thought about this time period like this.”
It was paramount to Rourke that she cast her historical drama with diversity in mind, selecting Gemma Chan to play Elizabeth’s lady in waiting Bess of Hardwick, Ismael Cruz Cordova in the heartrending role of Mary’s private secretary David Rizzio, and Adrian Lester as England’s ambassador to Scotland, Lord Randolph.
“This is partly because of my background in theater, but I was really clear with Working Title and Focus, and they were very supportive, that I was not going to direct an all-white period drama,” explained Rourke. “That’s it. It’s just not a thing I was going to do. It’s not a thing that I do in theater and I don’t want to do it in film.”
Bess of Hardwick, as played by “Crazy Rich Asians” actress Chan, “is such a badass,” Robbie volunteered. “She should have her own movie. She had like six husbands who all mysteriously died, a.k.a. she probably murdered them and then she’d go and marry a richer one! We actually shot in one of her castles.”
“Look at Adrian Lester,” Rourke said of the Olivier Award-winning actor and OBE recipient. “He knows more about Shakespeare than most academics. It’s ridiculous that part of his heritage as an English classical actor doesn’t get translated to screen. Why miss out on that talent and the ability of those amazing actors to tell their stories?”
Blending handsome production design with out-of-the-box execution — much of the film’s period dress was crafted from denim by costume designer Alexandra Byrne, who won the Oscar for 2007’s “Elizabeth: The Golden Age” — the film paints Mary as not only a confident and clever strategist but, socially speaking, radically inclusive.
As political walls close in around her she finds comfort and support in her loyal coterie of handmaidens and lone male confidant Rizzio, whose homosexuality Mary embraces even when he betrays her trust. They are, in today’s parlance, as Ronan put it, “her hashtag-squad.”
“You have to remember, she’s a girl. She’s a 19-year-old girl. She’s the same age as, like, Lorde!” Ronan exclaimed, comparing Mary, Queen of Scots, to the “Royals” singer. “It was really important to see these two women kind of go head to head, but it was also lovely to see them both with their own women in their private lives too.”
While historians agree the two queens likely never met in person, even as Mary fled Scotland and sought refuge in England under her cousin’s protection, “Mary Queen of Scots” builds toward a cathartic construction that also marks Ronan and Robbie’s sole shared onscreen moment.
“Even though they only meet once in the movie, they’re so present in each other’s imaginations,” said Rourke, who deftly directs a fictional covert countryside meeting between the two women whose juxtaposed lives intersect in the film’s most electric sequence.
To prepare for the meaty 12-page scene, the actresses avoided each other on set during filming so that their first moment laying eyes on the other would be captured on-screen.
“It was my first scene and Margot’s last scene, and it was the scene that I had drilled the most before we started rehearsals,” remembered Ronan. “We rehearsed it once for an hour before we started shooting, and it just felt right straight away. We knew what this was. I got to explore who Mary was, every aspect of her and every shade.”
“Likewise, doing that scene made the movie the experience it was for me, and the moments leading up to that define Elizabeth,” agreed Robbie. “I think she lacked the courage to stand up and do and say some of the things that Mary actually did … I think she both admired her for that, and was scared for her.”
When they finished the scene, the two stood in a lengthy embrace. “I remember we said afterward, ‘I’ve had you in my head the whole time — you’ve been there with me,’” said Ronan, turning to Robbie. “And when I went off to do the rest of the film she was there, I had a little Margot on my shoulder.”
Humanizing these legendary heads of state reminds us that figures like Mary were people too, they say. Monarchs — they’re just like us! “That’s what I love about ‘Veep,’” raved Ronan of the HBO series. “It’s so genius because it’s like, ‘Oh, they are just people. And they are [messing] up every day. They are making mistakes all the time.’”
Mary and Elizabeth’s stories resonate even more strongly through a modern lens, added Ronan, pointing to how two of the most prominent women leading European politics today are scrutinized.
“It’s such a timely story right now especially in the U.K. because you’ve got Nicola Sturgeon up north and you’ve got Theresa [May] down south,” she said. “You’ve got these two women that are very, very different standing for very different things, but they’re strong and they’re doing their thing. To have a film like this come out now is so perfect.”
Telling the political and emotional truths of women like Mary and Elizabeth in ways never before tackled on stage or screen is entirely the point, suggested Rourke, who said her work in theater shares the same goal of bridging lessons of the past with issues of today.
“I’ve done a ton of Shakespeare plays, and we would never look at an old play and not try and work out how that speaks to the present,” said Rourke. “And I think sometimes an old story is the best way to talk about what is happening right now.”
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