Thursday, December 27, 2018

Mary, Queen of Scots (The Movie)

In my younger years, I spent a lot of time in the public library, which meant that I really read a lot – history and biography, in particular. I became especially interested in the history of the Tudor and Stuart periods and in the personality of Mary, Queen of Scots, the common ancestor of all subsequent British monarchs down to the present. I read whatever biographies and historical novels about her were accessible to me at the time, and became quite the expert on her life (1542-1587), for all but the first week of which she was a queen, and on her short but adventurous actual reign in Scotland (1561-1567). In addition to being a romantic figure in her own right, I also appreciated her as a kind of Catholic martyr, whose execution by her Protestant cousin Elizabeth of England precluded her succession to the English crown and the alternate history that unfulfilled possibility proposed.

So it was with great interest that I have awaited this month's release of the latest Mary, Queen of Scots movie, fully prepared to accept the inevitable historical inaccuracies such films frequently exhibit, one of which was already obvious in the trailer. A staple of Mary, Queen of Scots movies, including this one, has the two queens who uncomfortably coexisted on the island of Great Britain, meeting at some point. In fact, however, although Mary lived as a refugee/prisoner in Elizabeth's England for some 19 years after being deposed by Scotland's Protestant nobles, the two never met. Historical accuracy could perhaps be salvaged by staging their meeting through their letters to one another over the years; but, since their lives were historically so intertwined, the dramatic license of the more personal meeting scene is an inevitable casualty of the movie as medium.

One of the great challenges of a film based in historical fact is to explain enough to make the story both true to history and comprehensible to its audience, which somehow needs to know the answers to such questions as: What was Mary doing in France in the first place? Why did she return to Scotland at 18? How did Scotland turn Protestant in her absence? What religious policy did she adopt? Given the religious difference and her claim to the English throne, were there any alternatives to the way her relationship with Elizabeth played out? If the viewer doesn't already have answers to these questions, then the film must fill in the gaps sufficiently for the viewer to appreciate what is going on, lest the viewer interpret the characters solely as if they were modern contemporaries with contemporary concerns and priorities rather than 16th-century ones. On balance, this movie does a good job of clarifying enough of the historical background for its audience, while still allowing the audience to interpret the characters in a contemporary way. 

Appealing presumably to a modern sensibility, the movie interestingly does highlight the impact of the two queens' gender. In Shakespeare in Love (1998), Queen Elizabeth famously says "I know something of a woman in a man's profession." Certainly Scotland's Protestant leader, John Knox, author of The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstruous Regiment [Rule] of Women (1558) opposed Mary's rule on gender grounds as well as on religious grounds. (Knox had in fact directed his book against two Catholic queens – Mary I of England, Elizabeth’s older sister, and Mary of Guise, the French widow of Scotland’s James V, who was Mary, Queen of Scots’ mother and ruled as regent on her behalf until her own death in 1560.)

Historically, the two queens' gender and the very opposite ways each of them dealt with being "a woman in a man's profession," proved decisive. Whatever her personal sexual feelings and desires, Elizabeth successfully sublimated her sexuality sufficiently to be married exclusively to England and thus successfully avoided being dominated by any man. (Of course, this meant she had no direct heir, which exacerbated the problem of the Catholic Mary as her heir. Elizabeth's core concern, which the movie admirably makes evident, was less Mary's eventually succeeding her than Mary's possibly displacing her in her lifetime. After all, not only did Roman Catholic Europe see Mary as England's rightful Queen, so most likely did many of Elizabeth's own, still Catholic subjects.

Unlike Elizabeth, however, Mary famously did allow her personal feelings and desires to dominate, resulting in her disastrous marriages to Henry Lord Darnley, son of the Earl of Lennox, and, after his murder, to Lord James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell. Darnley was a logical choice in one sense, since he had the next best claim (after Mary) to the English throne. But, to the Protestant elites in both countries, their marriage threatened to produce a permanent Catholic dynasty. In fact, however, Darnley, for all his good looks and charm, proved to be an ambitious but weak jerk, who quickly alienated the Queen, especially after his part in the murder of her Italian secretary, David Rizzio, the turning point in her short reign.. And then, after Darnley's bizarre murder in February 1567, the primary suspect was a man, Bothwell, who, to Mary, was everything Darnley was not. Curiously, the film does not highlight Mary's infatuation with Bothwell, perhaps  to minimize her complicity in her own downfall and emphasize instead the perfidy of the men who formed the political elite. In any case, marry him Mary did - letting her heart rule her head, something Elizabeth would never do. A mere month later, Mary was overthrown and forced to abdicate in favor of her year-old son (who would be raised Protestant as Scotland's James VI and would eventually succeed Elizabeth as England's James I). A year later (the interval curiously conflated in the movie) she managed to escape, but, instead of fleeing to France as logically she should have, she fled to Elizabeth's England.

I doubt that the historical Darnley won Mary over quite the way he does in the movie, and it is debatable whether he and Rizzio (whose bloodstains can today still be seen at Edinburgh's Holyrood Palace) were ever in fact lovers; but the far more important point is that the ways Mary navigated (or failed to navigate) her complex (political and romantic) relationships with those three men were an important part of her undoing.

Dramatically it is a good film, if perhaps a bit too long. It is also visually engaging, and in the process highlights the differences between the two countries, which might also help explain the eagerness of Mary and of her son after her to inherit the English throne! 

The perennial danger in focusing overly on aspects of the story which appeal more to a contemporary sensibility is not that those aspects were unimportant but that the most important component of the conflict - religion - may be less fully appreciated as a result. Mary's unsuccessful reign and her failure to secure the succession to the English crown, which in the end cost her her life as well as her throne, were exacerbated by her personal and romantic  mistakes, but were due ultimately to her being a Catholic Queen of a country that had turned Protestant in her absence, and to her aspiring to succeed to the throne of a neighboring country that had also recently turned Protestant, whose ruling elite were determined to keep it that way no matter what. While the film focuses a lot on Mary's personality and femininity and the character differences between her and Elizabeth (whose own ambivalence is also acknowledged), it also leaves no doubt that the ultimate issue that divided the two Queens and cost Mary her crown and her life was Mary's Roman Catholicism 

That is the story that changed Britain forever and has accordingly left its religious and political legacy upon the entire English-speaking world.

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