Sex and the City Goes to Holyrood

Submitted by martin on 21 January, 2019 - 4:43 Author: Dale Street
Mary Queen of Scots

At first sight "Mary Queen of Scots", released in the UK on 18 January, appears to be another celluloid contribution to the cult of Mariolatry.

Its trailer portrays Mary as an armour-clad warrior leading her troops into battle, a target of religious misogyny, a feisty heroine who faces down Queen Elizabeth, a victim of patriarchal politics, a champion of equal rights, and a fatal casualty of her own virtues.

At times, it is true, the film builds up Mary into a kind of cult figure for twenty-first-century feminism, liberal values and gender-identity politics. But that is secondary, by far, to the fact that the film is simply boring.

"I can't understand why anyone would want to make a film about such an overrated woman, she didn't have much of a head to begin with," said historian Jenny Wormald, author of *Mary Queen of Scots: A Study in Failure*, in an interview with the *Sunday Times* in 1997.

Despite everything, Wormald had a valid point. Even before her execution, the real Mary had been obscured by the beginnings of a veritable cult. In the years - and centuries - following her death the cult increasingly blotted out reality.

As early as the 1570s Mary's imprisonment by Protestant England earned her a place in the annals of Catholic martyrs. Marian martyrologist Nicholas Sanders even claimed that Mary had refused the English throne out of loyalty to the Catholic faith.

Mary's execution triggered mass demonstrations in Paris. Adam Blackwood's "de Jezebelis" (i.e. Elizabeth of England) called for a French invasion to avenge her death. The Spanish "Address to the Captains and Men on the Armada" promised them the aid of "the blessed and innocent Mary, still fresh from her sacrifice."

Visitors to her tomb claimed to witness miracles. There were regular calls for her canonisation. By the end of the eighteenth century this cult had already transformed Mary into what Wormald calls "the male-dominated, passion-ridden female so well known to readers of the novels of Barbara Cartland."

In later years the Nazis rallied to the cult of Mariolatry. Their wartime film "The Heart of the Queen" portrayed Mary as an innocent victim of England's drive for world domination, lured to her death by Elizabeth's machinations. As the film's Elizabeth helpfully explained: "He who lets himself be helped by England, he dies."

The film's format (and not just its format) is the same as that of "The Heart of the Queen". It begins with Mary's imminent execution. There is then a prolonged flashback to various (largely fictional) events and snippets torn out of their historical context. These climax in a return to Mary's actual execution.

As the film progresses, the succession of events and the overall historical context become increasingly difficult to follow. When a film can be understood only if its viewers have read Antonia Fraser's seven-hundred-page biography of Mary, if even then, there is an obvious problem.

In place of a script which holds the film together as a whole, each individual incident has its own mini-script, tailored to make a particular point (however artificially). This is made even worse by the frequently deadpan mode of delivery.

All historical films sacrifice historical accuracy to dramatic effect. And fair enough. Such films do not claim to be documentaries. But in this film historical truth appears to be not so much the first casualty as the main enemy.

The film portrays Mary as a monarch committed to the welfare of her kingdom. But before her return to Scotland from France - the opening scene of the prolonged flashback - Mary had signed the country away to France in secret agreements before her marriage to the Dauphin.

The film Mary refuses to marry for political convenience: "I could have married any number of suitors, but I refused them all." But the only suitors refused by the real Mary were ones deemed too poor (Archduke of Austria) or too minor (various scions of Scandinavian royalty).

Mr. Right for Mary was always someone who had an empire, an army or money - or preferably all three. After the death of her first husband, Mary looked to marry his successor on the French throne or the heir to the Spanish Empire. A return to Scotland was not even on her agenda.

The film Mary dies a martyr. (We know that because one of the attendees at the execution is kind enough to tell us.) But the real Mary was not a martyr to virtue in a world of evil (Elizabeth: "Your gifts will be your downfall.") She chose to die as a martyr for Catholicism.

She belatedly discovered that she had been "born to offer my blood" for the Catholic faith. She calculated that her death would be "profitable before God for the children of his Church." And she was set on "spending my blood in defence of the ancient Roman Catholic religion."

Her execution certainly triggered a cult. But not everybody took out membership. When Mary's son discovered that his mother's death warrant had been signed, he commented: "She should drink the ale that she has brewed".

Mary was caught - "entrapped" would be more accurate - plotting to overthrow Elizabeth. The Bolsheviks executed the Romanovs, a dynastic rallying point for the forces of White counter-revolution; Elizabeth did the equivalent in her age, only with some hesitation and without the revolutionary determination displayed by the Bolsheviks.

The film's assault on historical accuracy reaches its nadir with the washhouse confrontation between Mary and Elizabeth which ends the flashback. That no such meeting ever took place is a secondary failing.

The film "needs" the scene for a contrived climactic confrontation between the two monarchs. Mary berates Elizabeth for being her "inferior" and warns her that if she murders Mary, then she will be murdering her "queen" and her "sister". Elizabeth can only wilt under the pressure of Mary's verbal onslaught.

This confrontation-that-never-was is the final example of the crude juxtaposition of the two monarchs which, with increasing tediousness, permeates the entire film.

Mary has orgasms. Elizabeth is frigid. Mary is fertile. Elizabeth is barren. Mary has an alabaster complexion. Elizabeth has a pox-scarred face. Mary has a full head of hair. Elizabeth wears a wig. Mary is relaxed. Elizabeth is pompous.

Mary is surrounded by simplicity. Elizabeth is surrounded by pageantry. Mary enjoys life. Elizabeth is riven by neurotic uncertainty. Mary whiles away the evenings with her servants. Elizabeth maintains a haughty distance from hers.

Mary gallops across the hills of Scotland. Elizabeth wanders aimlessly round forbidding palaces. Mary is a woman. Elizabeth is a man.

"I choose to be a man … I am more man than woman now," says Elizabeth. "I will be the woman she is not, I will produce an heir unlike her barren self," says Mary. And in the washhouse scene, the three gifts which will be Mary's downfall are: "your beauty, your bravery, your motherhood".

The film Mary is a 21st century liberal transplanted to the 16th century. When her second husband turns out to be bisexual and spends the wedding night in bed with the gay, transgender, cross-dressing court musician, Mary forgives the musician: he simply has to live life the way he is.

The incident epitomises one of the core weaknesses of the film's portrayal of Mary. As the *New York Times* review put it, albeit far too mildly: "Mary's declarations of tolerance - for foreigners, sexual non-conformists and freethinkers - sound a bit too closely tailored to twenty-first-century sensibilities."

The review in the American *Vulture* magazine homed in on the same point: "The intermittent stabs at a boardroom's idea of millennial values renders 'Mary' a kind of nothing of a film. It ends up doing the exact same things - pitting women against each other, fixating on fertility and virginity - it claims to find so oppressive for its heroine."

The film's John Knox is played by David Tennant, the time-travelling Dr. Who. But the film is such a jumble that it seems to be Mary herself who has travelled back in time - a "Sex and the City" heroine catapulted through time and space from modern New York to sixteenth-century Scotland (although she would have preferred France or Spain).

Scotsnat puddledrinkers will be those who are the most disappointed with the film.

They like their history to be, in Wormald's words, "a tartan romance which makes folk heroes of failures and thugs, be they Mary Queen of Scots, Rob Roy, or Bonnie Prince Charlie." And they prefer their films to end with "Freeeeeedom!" ("Braveheart") or mounds of English corpses ("Outlaw King").

But Mary's final words in this film are: "We shall live in peace", followed by a shot of James VI of Scotland and I of England sitting on the throne following the Union of the Crowns.

So, the film does have one redeeming feature after all.


Submitted by john cunningham (not verified) on Wed, 23/01/2019 - 19:24

Interesting review from Dale Street. I haven't seen the film yet (and maybe I won't bother). Just to add a few, maybe not that relevant, observations. Mary was also the subject of a film, "Mary of Scotland" (1936) by US director John Ford which I understand is not that different to "Das Herz der Konigen". In the German film Mary is played by Zarah Leander who the Nazis hoped would fill the gap left by Marlene Dietrich. Leander was popular with gay and lesbian auidences, this and the fact that she was Swedish caused some tensions within the Nazi Hierarchy. There are also rumours that she was a spy for the Soviet Union! The Nazis made a number of other anti-British propaganda films which often portrayed British foreign and colonial policies in a negative light (not that hard to find suitable material here!). Ireland featured in some of these: "Def Fuchs von Glenarvon" and "Mein Lieben fur Irland" are both set in Ireland in 1921. "Ohm Kruger" is a Nazi 1941 film set in South Africa featuring the Boer politician Paul Kruger who falls foul of the English. So Mary of Scotland is not alone in being 'honoured' by the Nazis.

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