Has long-form television rendered the traditional biopic obsolete? The life of Mary Stuart recently was treated over 78 hours on an American TV series, and while no one to my knowledge makes any great claims for Reign, someone familiar with that program might see Josie Rourke's film as little more than a digest of the show's final season. Feature-film history must aspire to something other than the immersive effect much of "platinum age" or "peak" TV aspires to. It must justify its brevity on artistic grounds or by offering an interpretation of a life or event that makes relatively few incidents decisive. In the case of Mary Stuart a common approach is to imagine a fictional event: a meeting between Mary and her southern counterpart Elizabeth Tudor that apparently never happened in reality. The need for such an encounter itself testifies to the significance of Elizabeth to Mary's story, or the significance of Mary's story to the history of England. Beau Willimon's screenplay follows this tradition, while Rourke, a stage director making her first movie, treats it like the buildup to the climactic fight in a martial-arts movie. Mary (Saoirse Ronan) must make her way through a barn infested with curtains and veils in order finally to get a glimpse of her "sister" queen (Margot Robbie) as they chant like taunting villain and dauntless hero.The queens must meet so that Mary can experience her final, fatal betrayal. The story here is of sisterly solidarity denied. Soon after Mary, the widowed former queen of France, returns to her Scots homeland, she writes Elizabeth proposing mutual support in the face, more plainly in Scotland than in England, of entrenched misogyny. Elizabeth remains aloof, probably because Mary insists that she acknowledge her as heir to the English throne. Her hope may be that this will reinforce her position at home, where she faces a brother accustomed to rule, a skeptical nobility, and that Scots Rasputin, John Knox (David Tennant), the conservative media of his time. In parallel narratives both queens are pressured to marry and reproduce. Mary, more of a sensualist, gives in while Elizabeth resists to the point of recommending one of her own paramours as a husband to Mary. Remaining a Virgin Queen allows Elizabeth to retain her autonomy, at the price, by her own admission, of her femininity, while Mary grows only more vulnerable to powerful men even as Knox convinces the masses that she's a murderous whore on top of being an idolatrous papist. We see that she's been smeared and many will rage at her helplessness as a queen reduced to men's plaything, finally raped, for all intents and purposes, by a husband forced on her by the nobles. Finally she asks Elizabeth for military intervention, and when the queen sadly explains that she can't give aid to a Catholic monarch Mary snaps, sealing her own fate with a rant declaring herself Elizabeth's own sovereign and denouncing her as a traitor. We don't need to see anymore at this point, so we return to the fashionable flashforward of Mary's execution that opened the film.
A film adaptation of John Guy's biography has been in the works for more than a decade, but I could see people seeing the finished product, English-made as it is, as some kind of allegory for progressives refusing to support Hillary Clinton. The film flaunts its own progressiveness with aggressive inclusive casting, making the English ambassador to Scotland (Adrian Lester) and a member of Elizabeth's privy council black men and by adding a degree of homophobia to the sins of the Scots establishment given the relationship between Lord Danley (Jack Lowden) and Mary's minstrel-scribe David Rizzio (Ismael Cruz Cordova). The Brits are probably more used to inclusive casting by now thanks to Shakespearean theater giving worthy actors of color opportunities to play the great roles, but it seems harder to justify when some of the performers are little more than well-dressed extras. But by now I've reconciled myself to this violation of realism on film -- the "meta" quality of the stage may make inclusive casting less jarring -- by reminding myself that for generations Hollywood cast gentiles as semites in Bible stories with almost no one protesting. In any event, only two performers really count here -- and of the others Tennant is particularly bad in a one-dimensional heavily bearded role written with little understanding of how someone like Knox could be a successful demagogue. The real battle for supremacy on screen is between Ronan, who gets all the sympathy from the screenplay, and Robbie, whose past experience playing a she-devil in clown makeup no doubt recommended her for the role of Elizabeth I as envisioned here. To be fair, Elizabeth is portrayed as a tragic figure, no less compromised by refusing to mate than Mary is by taking husbands. She proves incapable of showing the solidarity with another woman that the film demands because her solution to the dilemma of a woman claiming power is l'etat, c'est moi, only with the opposite effect of the egoism we associate with that motto. Elizabeth must become the state at the expense of her femininity, her persistent and increasingly delusional vanity notwithstanding, and ultimately at the expense of effective empathy. Whether there was ever any chance of the two queens forming a matriarchal alliance given the inherent threat Mary presented to Elizabeth and the realities of Reformation geopolitics is less important to this version of the Mary story than Elizabeth's more timeless failure. But if this all sounds dismissive, let me close with praise for Saoirse Ronan. With the whole deck stacked in her character's favor, she does a great job portraying Mary as a three-dimensional, fallible heroine instead of a flawless martyr. Her effort alone just about justifies this enterprise.