It’s a given of the movie business that there will be a queen somewhere in the mix. Lately, we’ve seen a tilt toward Victoria, broad-minded and firm, as in Victoria & Abdul and The Young Victoria. Earlier, there was a vogue for Elizabeths, both I and II. Cate Blanchett twice played Elizabeth I in Elizabeth and Elizabeth: The Golden Age, and Helen Mirren played Elizabeth II in The Queen. Between and around those, among others, have come The Other Boleyn Girl, Marie Antoinette and Sony’s promised return to Cleopatra, Queen of the Nile.
Empowered, embattled, enchanting and enlightened, royal womanhood inhabits a space of which more democratic female screen figures — Meryl Streep’s Katharine Graham, Natalie Portman’s Jacqueline Kennedy — can only dream. The board room and the Oval Office are important. But nothing beats a throne, at least when it comes to the movies.
So this year’s queen appears to be Mary Stuart — Mary, Queen of Scots —to be played by Saoirse Ronan in an eponymous film directed by Josie Rourke and set for domestic release by Focus Features in early December. It should be a sizzler. Spoiler alert — sorry, this is history — Mary gets beheaded in 1587 on orders of the aforementioned Elizabeth I, here played by Margot Robbie, who never does things halfway.
The film arrives with strong feminine credentials: Rourke is an established British theater director with credits that include productions of Coriolanus, Much Ado About Nothing and Men Should Weep. Its intrigues are sure to be deeper than those of Ronan’s Lady Bird or Robbie’s I, Tonya. There are kingdoms, or rather queendoms, at stake, and the writer is Beau Willimon, best known for the delightfully convoluted power plays in his Netflix rendering of House of Cards.
We had Mary Stuart on film in 2013, portrayed by Camille Rutherford in a Swiss-based Mary, Queen of Scots that played festivals in Los Angeles and Toronto but evaded the box office. That version of Mary seemingly didn’t amount to much. A summary on the IMDbPro data base calls her: “A queen who lost three kingdoms. A wife who lost three husbands. A woman who lost her head.”
Charles Jarrott, fresh off the Boleyn story Anne of a Thousand Days, directed a weightier telling back in 1971. That one, also called Mary, Queen of Scots, was panned by Vincent Canby in The New York Times, but it grabbed five Oscar nominations, including best actress for Vanessa Redgrave, who played Mary, opposite Glenda Jackson as Elizabeth. (In the same year, Redgrave played a sexually repressed nun who triggered a witch hunt with false accusations against Oliver Reed in Ken Russell’s The Devils; but that one seems not quite ripe for a remake.) Long imprisoned, Redgrave’s Mary, a Catholic, defied Jackson’s Elizabeth, a Protestant, in a bold, face-to-face confrontation that never actually happened, and paid the price.
What Ronan’s Mary will tell us about contemporary sexual politics remains to be seen. But the signs point toward a movie queen very much in keeping with impulses of present-day women who are done letting the men take control. That it will be a sympathetic portrayal is almost certain: Willimon’s script is based on a biography by John Guy, which was originally published in 2004 as My Heart Is My Own: The Life of Mary, Queen of Scots. Something of a revisionist, Guy —according to a review by the University of Arizona historian Retha M. Warnicke — challenged the author Jenny Wormand’s prior conclusion that Mary was “the worst Scottish monarch since Robert III.” He rejected as forgeries the famous Casket Letters, in which Mary was implicated with her third husband, the Earl of Bothwell, in the murder of her second husband Lord Darnley (the first was Francis II, king of France).
At the same time, as Warnicke notes, Guy “suspects that Mary’s sexual relations with Bothwell were more satisfying than with Darnley, claims that Darnley was bisexual and Rizzio’s lover [Rizzio being a private secretary who was rumored to be the father of her child] and gratuitously refers to Elizabeth’s ‘heavy petting’ with [the Earl of Leicester] Robert Dudley.”
Warnicke, the historian, clucks her tongue a bit at what she sees as factual errors, omitted evidence and all that sexual gossip. But it sounds like good stuff for a movie — just what we need from this year’s queen.