The story of King Henry VIII’s ruthless pursuit of securing a male heir has been brought to the screen on numerous occasions. Most of these films followed the familiar story line of his numerous marriages which inevitably end in death or divorce for the wives who fail to produce a male heir. MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS, newly released, however, features a distinct feminist take on the aftermath of these historical events, depicting two fierce women in a power struggle over the throne.
Mary and Elizabeth are the two female protagonists, united by their bloodline and their gender, but historical events beyond their control-created by misogynist King VIII-inspire a saga leading to a brutal power struggle over the fate of England. What sets this film apart is that it never shies away from portraying the matriarchs’ ruthless maneuvering, nor does it villify either woman. What a novel concept! Depicting its female characters as fully fleshed human beings capable of a wide range of behaviors this film acknowledges their humanity, gender and worthiness of our respect. Mary assembles and leads an army to battle but does so in a uniquely feminine way. She speaks individually to members of the volunteer army, thanking each for their service. Mary’s praise is sincere, almost maternal, but she also uses her feminine charm to motivate and influence them. Cinema rarely depicts woman as actual warriors going to battle (or when it does too often simply does so by making them behave like their male counterparts) so it’s fascinating and refreshing, to behold this more feminine take on female-driven war.
Pregnancy and female sexuality are likewise handled in a bold fashion. Both women endure great pressure to produce an heir in order to secure the throne, an obsession more often depicted from the patriarch’s perspective. In this film it’s the women who are now responsible for this enormous task, all the more challenging given that Mary is trapped in a marriage with a drunkard, and Elizabeth remains unmarried. Mary, desperate for an heir, practically forces her husband to have sex. The dominant one in the relationship, she’s determined to have her way. It’s difficult to recall the last time a film has portrayed an aggressive sex scene where the gender roles are reversed, and it’s eye-opening. We have compassion for Mary because we understand she’s trying to survive within a system where women of high stature live under the threat of ruin if they fail to produce a male heir.
Another bold move by the filmmakers is their candid portrayal of menstruation, sans mockery or horror as cinema usually depicts it. In one scene as Mary bathes we see her menstrual blood. In a BBC INTERVIEW Josie Rourke, the director, calls it the “most straightforward scene” in the film and says “I think that it’s probably one of the few contexts in which I can say normalisation is a good thing, we just need to see that, because it happens to pretty much half of us at some point in our lives and that we’ve not shown it before is probably just a bit disappointing more than anything else.” Imagine a male director depicting such an intimate, honest scene given how men are taught to be squeamish about the realities of women’s natural cycles. Once again we see the importance of the female perspective in the craft of both writing and directing.
The film’s politics strike a chillingly relevant chord in our contemporary context begging the question: how far have women really advanced? The powerful men of that time, including Protestant leader John Knox, cannot abide at the thought of a Catholic woman in charge of England and makes it his mission to destroy her reputation. Sound familiar? Accuse the the woman you want to destroy of being a “whore” and a “loose woman” (or even a “nasty one”) and you can turn an entire society against her. Mary is subject to such a smear campaign eerily reminiscent of the past presidential election in which a male adversary led a crowd in chanting, “Get her, get her.” Apparently, some things never change.
Mary Queen of Scots boldy explores new territory in its brave and innovative portrayal of two powerful, ambitious and beautifully complex women. Both seek to rule England, both are portrayed with respect and compassion. Neither are denigrated to victims nor tormentors. Independent of men, they forge alliances as needed but maintain control. Elizabeth and Mary are both poignant symbols of female power and remind us how the mere act of trying to survive in a man’s world can be all-consuming. Both women are vindicated by history, and now again by this film.
Mary’s son would eventually be named heir to Elizabeth. Elizabeth became England’s greatest monarch leading the country through a golden era of peace and prosperity, an accomplishment unmatched by any English King. Let’s hope more of us learn from her example and find the courage to follow in her footsteps.
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