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Mary Queen of Scots in the Age of Brexit

Why is Hollywood so intent on using this period in British history as a blank canvas?

Liam Daniel / Focus Features

Saoirse Ronan made a colossal mistake in taking the role of Queen Mary in the new historical drama Mary Queen of Scots. Not because she plays the character badly—she does a sterling job. It’s a mistake because it will now make casting her as Queen Elizabeth I in future movies much more difficult. Perhaps no actor in the history of cinema, except Judi Dench as the aged queen of Shakespeare in Love, is better suited to play the translucent, ginger-haired, ice-eyed monarch.

Instead, Margot Robbie plays Elizabeth in Mary Queen of Scots. The movie begins in August of 1561, with Mary—only surviving child of James V of Scotland, and niece of King Henry VIII—returning to Scotland after a childhood spent in France. It ends with Mary’s execution in 1587 by Elizabeth, her cousin, after Mary is convicted of conspiring to depose the Queen.

The majority of the action takes place during the 1560s, when Mary ruled as Queen of Scotland. Her reign was a tricky affair. She struggled to fight off various scheming men, while scheming herself to have Elizabeth name her successor of the English throne. This is a tale of love and tension between two powerful cousins. It also happens to be the backstory to the unification of the United Kingdom—a theme that, unfortunately for director Josie Rourke, jars uncomfortably with the chaos emanating from Westminster this week.

The chief problem with Rourke’s interpretation of the two queens is that she focuses on their personal foibles to the exclusion of their politics. While Mary is shown as spirited, smart, and confident, Rourke portrays Elizabeth as an insecure and wobbly person, obsessed by her inability to bear a child and therefore jealous of her fecund cousin.

It’s true that Elizabeth refused to marry or bear children, and that the resulting lack of an heir caused problems in her court. But framing the conflict between Elizabeth and Mary as one between an anxious, barren tyrant and a quick-witted underdog is just plain wrong. Rourke invents one scene in which Mary and Elizabeth meet in secret, exchanging their hopes and fears in some sort of secluded barn full of laundry. “I was jealous,” Elizabeth says to Mary, “of your beauty, your bravery, your motherhood. You seem to surpass me in every way.”

There are glorious moments in Mary Queen of Scots, as in every shot of Mary riding a spirited horse across Scottish hills bathed in sunlight and heather. But the barn scene is symptomatic of the schmaltz that has crept into this film, reducing its political complexity to quivering female lips.

In this flattening out of history into sentimental drama, the film resembles Netflix’s The Outlaw King, about the life of Robert the Bruce, a direct ancestor of Mary (his grandson founded the House of Stuart, which was Mary’s last name). As Kanishk Tharoor wrote in The Nation, “historical Robert the Bruce was as cynical and ruthless an opportunist as you could find,” though The Outlaw King shows him leader of a monolithic band of Scots fighting an English occupation. The film frames Robert’s supporters as a kind of fully-formed nation, which is misleading: “Looking through the lens of the present,” Tharoor writes, “we have a way of projecting modern national identities into the deep past.”

Similarly, Mary Queen of Scots smooths over the history of nationalism in Britain, and thus projects an origin story for the British nation-state that is less complicated than reality. The key lies in events that came after Mary’s execution, and after Elizabeth’s own death: In 1603, Mary’s son James inherited the thrones of Scotland (as James VI) and England (as James I), which controlled Ireland. We call this event the Union of the Crowns. The two Acts of Union in the early eighteenth century formally bound the territory into one entity: “United into One Kingdom by the Name of Great Britain.” In a very real sense, the plot of Mary Queen of Scots outlines the genesis of a United Kingdom whose long, long life, as I type this, appears to be spluttering to an end.

What is “united” about the United Kingdom in December of 2018? On Monday, British Prime Minister Theresa May canceled the Brexit vote she promised would take place on Tuesday, because she wasn’t going to win it. The pound sterling started dropping. A rogue MP grabbed the ceremonial mace from the central table in Parliament and started waving it about. Pete Wishart of the Scottish National Party called Monday “the single biggest political crisis since Suez with the biggest capitulation since Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow.”

The timing, in other words, couldn’t be worse for entertainments like Mary Queen of Scots, which inherently has an intense relation to modern politics, but prefers to plumb history for the costumes and sibling-esque rivalries. In Mary Queen of Scots, we don’t see a reckoning with the future of a country united across the Scottish-English border. We see queens cry and fret about their hair.

There would seem to be more to history than that. Relations between Scotland and England could not be at a lower ebb. Scottish citizens overwhelmingly voted to stay in the EU during the Brexit referendum, but they were drowned out by English votes. Although Scotland had an independence referendum four years ago and opted to stay in the U.K., a bad Brexit treaty could very possibly lead to a breakup of the union. Ireland is in an even worse position. Currently under discussion in Parliament is the so-called “backstop,” a last-ditch option that keeps the border in Ireland open in the unpleasant event of a “no-deal Brexit.” A closed border could be disastrous for both the island’s economy and the Good Friday Agreement’s peacekeeping terms.

That the United Kingdom is on the brink of collapse reminds us that its integrity was not preordained—that it was, in fact, maintained by violence. At the U.K.’s political heart has always been the English crown—now the Parliament in London—which has abused countless citizens in the name of centralized power. That legacy of violence runs through Ireland, through Scotland, through civil war, and through the bloody colonialism that ate up so much of the world as part of the British Empire.

What are the imagined insecurities of a couple of queens, compared to that history? Why is Hollywood so intent on using this period as a blank canvas? Elizabeth I was not a neurotic weakling, and Mary Stuart was not a plucky little upstart. They were politicians who helped found a state whose age-old divisions have plunged a 21st century nation into the grip of disaster. Yes, the costumes are fun. But Mary Queen of Scots uses its queens’ femininity to turn British history into something soft and watchable, when what we need is a long, hard look that is less than flattering.