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Byron Shire
September 21, 2021

Cinema Review: Mary Queen of Scots

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Cinema has always taken liberties with historical fact. Barry Jones and similar brainiacs might take issue with this interpretation of the conflict between Elizabeth I of England (Margo Robbie) and her half-sister, Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots (Saoirise Ronin), but the world changes every day and with it our reading of how its machinations work. If there are details that have been fabricated in this oft-told story (did the two women really meet face to face?), they are forgivable, for what we have in director Josie Rourke’s movie is a fresh angle on the period from an unapologetically feminine perspective. A lasting impression is that this is history as seen by the ladies in waiting, which is in no way a criticism, for it is they, more than any male member of the court or close counsellor – notably William Cecil (Guy Pearce) – who heard every word whispered and every private exchange that was indulged in by their mistresses. And it is these unnamed women who are ever present throughout. Rourke presents both of her subjects in a sympathetic light that unintentionally, surely, tends to undermine their powerful feminine strengths – they rose above the patriarchy of the age but are nevertheless shown as victims of it. More so, their sexuality is given primacy in determining the political tides of the times. Mary, the Catholic, is seduced by the effete Lord Darnley – their mating includes a totally gratuitous scene in which he performs oral sex on her (why is this sort of thing necessary?) – while childless Queen Bess is seen to be envious of Mary’s fecundity. I knew nothing of the involvement in the tumult of the hateful John Knox, founder of the Presbyterian Church, nor was I aware of Mary’s brother’s duplicity. Cherry-pick what you will from the history, it is beautifully shot – the horses are fab – and, more important, in our age that is so polarised on any issue, it encourages us to regard both sides of a complex argument. 

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  1. John, while we always expect some historical differences, does it purport in the film that Elizabeth and Mary are half-sisters? They were cousins. Elizabeth did have an older half sister, Mary, who ruled as Mary I just before Elizabeth. Their younger half brother, Edward VI, ruled before both of them.


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