You may be expecting, or hoping, that this review is written by a historian with the knowledge and experience to say something clever about how closely the film resembles what actually happened in the past and the ways it deviates from it. That would be a logical assumption since this is Women’s History Scotland. As someone who researches the everyday lives of nineteenth-century women, frankly I am completely unable to do that. Instead, I would like to use my feminist credentials to make some points about women and gender in the film.
Most people are familiar with the historical, even mythical, legacies of Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I. As regular figures in school lessons, popular culture and historical memory, it does not take a keen interest in history to encounter either of them. Their stories are well-known and retold in discussions about lots of topics like one thread in a tapestry.
Yet there was clearly a concerted effort throughout the film to make the audience see things from Mary’s and Elizabeth’s individual perspectives, simply as people, but especially as women living in dizzyingly oppressive circumstances. The weight and strength of contemporary patriarchal culture was palpable, and all the more apparent when Mary and Elizabeth called out restrictive double standards and resolved to act with gumption, spirit and grit. This is what I found most compelling about the film; the message that in a sexist and misogynistic world women can always find a way to fight back.
I would need to watch the film again to decide if the audience were supposed to find it difficult to sympathise with male characters or if I was unwilling to because of my own bias. The models of masculinity in the film were pretty bleak. Most of the men marched around barking orders, setting expectations, and grappling for power. And every one of them, in some way, saw Mary or Elizabeth as a means to a grander end in pursuit of their own ambitions. Notions of social status, motivation and personal history with Mary or Elizabeth mattered little when there was a chance to get ahead.
The film deserves praise for its dealing with issues of representation. LGBTQ issues were the main focus in some scenes, driving the plot, creating dramatic tension and deciding certain characters’ fates, in a way that did not feel gratuitous or insensitive. Another accomplishment was a scene that depicts female sexual pleasure without any shyness or subtlety. The film shows that women experience autonomous sexual desire as a fact of life, albeit within a cultural context where sexuality and sex are as much sources of power as they are enjoyment. Unsurprisingly there are multiple rape scenes in the film, which again did not feel gratuitous for the sake of character development, and presented several perspectives at once whilst seeming to ultimately sympathise with women. You also see Mary get her period! Aside from aspects of the plot, the cast was ethnically diverse, avoiding a predominance of white faces.
On the whole, the film did feel quite feminist. There were some parts which I found problematic, but I recognise that they may not be to another feminist. I tend to bring a feminist and gender analysis to everything, but people interested in political identities and Scottish nationalism, and to a lesser extent religious difference, would equally be able to take something away from it. Without a critical engagement, the film is dramatic, has a slick production and some quality performances, and features some beautiful Scottish landscapes. But if you do like to watch sassy, complex female characters, this film is for you.
Mairi Hamilton is a second-year PhD student in the Centre for Gender History at the University of Glasgow. Her research examines narratives of women’s experiences of abuse in the home in nineteenth-century Scotland. She is also a member of the WHS Steering Committee. @MairiAntoinette