In hindsight, Outlaw King seems a bit like a fairy tale. (Best) Chris Pine as Robert the Bruce actually falls in love with the woman he’s been forced to marry, raises an army, earns the trust of his people, and is triumphant in his fight against the evil British as he tries to ensure the independence of Scotland. How nice!
Now, how different would the outcome have been if it were only Robert’s wife, Elizabeth de Burgh (Florence Pugh), trying to raise an army to protect her claim to the throne? That probably wouldn’t have gone so damn well, would it?
That realization of, “Oh right, the patriarchy fucking sucks, and men have ruined everything for all time,” runs throughout Mary Queen of Scots, which does in fact have more than a hypothetical connection to Outlaw King, as explained by Vulture writer Nate Jones:
This fall at the movies, Olivia Colman is playing the great-granddaughter of Saoirse Ronan, who is playing the great-great-great-great-great-great-great-granddaughter of Chris Pine.— Nate Jones (@kn8) December 5, 2018
When The Crown comes back, Colman will be playing her own second cousin nine times removed.
As Jones notes, when Outlaw King ends with the note that Robert the Bruce’s descendant would 300 years later unify the crowns of England and Scotland, the film is referring to the son of Mary, Queen of Scots, played in this film by Saoirse Ronan. As always, I’m stunned by Ronan’s formidable qualities as an actress, and this role is perfect for her.
As Mary, the half-French daughter of King James V who returns to her home of Scotland after her husband, France’s King Francis, dies, Ronan is alternately formidable, haughty, overly confident, kind, compassionate, embittered, desperate, enraged. She is a woman certain of her position and then increasingly disenfranchised, surrounded by men who claim to protect her but who only have eyes for her position. She is endangered, but she doesn’t quite know it at first, thinking that her qualifications for being queen—legitimate child of a king, raised to rule, educated and politically astute and clever—are enough.
Over in England, another woman in power, Queen Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie, also great, but with a less-central role than Ronan), knows the danger of men. She hasn’t taken a husband, despite a long-term affair with Earl Robert Dudley (Joe Alwyn), and she hasn’t produced an heir. Her primary adviser, William Cecil (Guy Pearce), is a man; her ambassador to Scotland, Lord Thomas Randolph (Adrian Lester), is a man; in fact, all of the people in her council are men. But Elizabeth doesn’t entirely trust them, and relishes that they all have to bow to her. She knows the power of her position, and she is unwilling to share it.
Yet so often, the gulf between Mary and Elizabeth seems defined by those very men. They try to encourage the women to battle each other; they try to encourage a civil war. At first, Elizabeth agrees with her council that she must control and subdue Mary, force her to marry a man of her choosing, give up her claim to the English crown as well as the Scottish one, renounce her Catholic religion and ties to the Pope in favor of Protestantism. But as the years pass, as Mary grows in power and as Elizabeth seems increasingly disinterested in attacking her cousin, the men all band together, switching sides and changing alliances and dropping their core principles just because to submit to a woman drives them insane.
Protestant cleric John Knox (David Tennant, reminding us of his performance in Jessica Jones and how vile he can be) claims that Mary, “as with all women,” is weak and hysterical; more than one man who claims to love Mary hits her and tries to force her to submit to his will; over in England, the men seem to relish Elizabeth’s loss of beauty when she’s affected by pox. These men are petty, they are violent, and they changed the course of history by working to discredit the women who rightfully claimed it.
Director Josie Rourke effectively balances the grand scale of this story with glimpses into these women’s intimate lives; we spend time in their bed chambers, with their handmaidens and their friends and their lovers, as well as in council rooms and during secret meetings. You understand how they vacillate between resenting each other because they feel that they should to understanding that they are each similarly unique, and that is from the strength of Robbie’s and in particular Ronan’s performances. Jack Lowden damn near ruined my whole damn life with his smug smile as Scottish noble Henry Stewart, a man trying to woo his way to Mary’s side, and he and Ronan had incredible chemistry; if they’re dating in real life, as rumors suggest, I APPROVE.
And the cinematography by John Mathieson (who also worked on Pajiba favorites The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and Logan) and costumes by Alexandra Byrne (whose varied credits include Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle and Murder on the Orient Express) succeed in building an immersive, fully realized set of worlds—the lushness and loneliness of Scotland vs. the brightly lit and opulent England.
“How cruel men are” is one of those lines in Mary Queen of Scots that you’ll remember because it’s so obvious and yet so true. Few movies this year make a better case for reassessing our accepted versions of history and reexamining the patriarchal truths we’ve come to accept than the impassioned, intricate Mary Queen of Scots.
(Oh, and fun Roxana Hadadi fact! When I was in third grade my seamstress aunt made me a red lace dress, my parents helped me put fake blood all over neck, and I went as Mary, Queen of Scots, for Halloween that year. So that’s who I am as a human being.)
Image sources (in order of posting): Focus Features, Focus Features, Focus Features, Focus Features