Queens on Screen

Posted by Speakeasy News > Thursday 21 February 2019 > What's On

Films about Stuart queens are like buses — there are none for ages, then two together, just in time for the Oscars. Mary Queen of Scots and her descendant Queen Anne are both gracing our screens in radically different biopics, both diverging from history as it has traditionally been portrayed.

The Favourite portrays the reign of Queen Anne, the last Stuart monarch (1702-1707). Up until now, she was mainly remembered in British public consciousness as the queen who gave her name to a style of furniture. It’s safe to say that won’t be foremost in moviegoers' minds after seeing Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’s tale of a female love triangle as two women vie for the role of the titular Queen’s Favourite. Anne is shown as incredibly isolated, and in need of a Favourite on her side. She suffers physically and mentally from 17 unsuccessful pregnancies. Lanthimos is known for his highly unorthodox storytelling — see his previous films The Lobster and The Killing of the Sacred Deer — and chooses to have the Queen’s bedroom populated by 17 rabbits in memory of her lost children.

It may seem surprising that Olivia Colman (Broadchurch, The Queen), who is fast approaching national treasure status, should choose to take on the starring role in his film, as the frankly cantankerous monarch. However she knew what to expect as she also appeared in The Lobster and it seems to have done her no harm at all as she  dominated the BAFTA awards and won the best actress Oscar.

There were historical rumours of a relationship between Anne and Lady Sarah Churchill, and Lady Sarah held the highest possible positions at court for a woman. She was an ancestor both of Winston Churchill and Princess Diana.

Rachel Weisz as Lady Sarah Churchill, and Emma Stone as Abigail.
Rachel Weisz as Lady Sarah Churchill, and Emma Stone as Abigail.

But Lanthimos has used the trio formed by Anne, Sarah and her destitute cousin Abigail to frame a story of women working to wield power within a male-dominated world. The Favourite shows three women condemned by the conventions within which they live to vie for power amongst themselves to survive. Women at the period were born at a disadvantage to men by law and tradition. But that same patriarchal law sometimes put a woman on a throne in the absence of a male heir.

Sisters or Rivals

Saoirse Ronan as Mary Queen of Scots.
Saoirse Ronan as Mary Queen of Scots.

Two other women that birth put on thrones are Elizabeth I of England and Mary Queen of Scots, who are at the heart of a new biopic of the Scottish monarch.

There have been many depictions of Mary’s tragic story in novels, operas, plays and films as well as histories and biographies. It’s a story that has fascinated for generations, in Britain and far beyond. But the narrative has often focused on the differences between the women — illegitimate versus legitimate; Virgin Queen versus thrice married and twice widowed; cold, calculating tyrant versus tragic heroine.

The new Mary Queen of Scots turns the focus onto what they had in common. They were both female leaders in a system which structurally preferred men. As such, they were surrounded by men telling them what to do or manipulating them in a particular direction. Whether about budgets, wars, religion or who they should marry.

Both women had had childhoods that any psychoanalyst would have a field day with. Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII, had her mother, Anne Boleyn beheaded when she was two, leaving the child with the taint of illegitimacy. She was then buffeted with the political and religious strife of the rest of his reign and those of her half-siblings Edward VI and Mary I, before finally being grudgingly crowned at the age of 25 with the distinct impression of being the third choice.

Mary, meanwhile, never knew her father, who died days after her birth. As an infant Queen, she was engaged first to the heir of England, then to the heir of France. She was dispatched to the French court at the age of 6, while her mother stayed in Scotland as regent. Married at 16, Queen consort at 18, by 19 she was a widow and an orphan as her mother and husband died in quick succession.

The biopic highlights these similarities but of course one major one was at the heart of their relationship — both women has claims to the English throne. For Elizabeth and her advisors that made Mary a danger. To others in the English, Scottish and French courts, it made her a valuable asset. And it would ultimately be her downfall.

Mary Queen of Scots is based on a new biography by Cambridge academic John Guy, which tries to rescue Mary from her portrayal as a puppet manipulated by others into a fully rounded actor in her own fate. It opens in 1561, when Mary returns to Scotland to rule. This is theatre director Josie Rourke’s first film, and she explains, "I really wanted to have two women lead a movie and drive the story. You have to look quite hard in cinema to find films where the two people pushing the story forward are both women. This is, in part, a film about their psychological obsession with each other. The film moves towards their imagined meeting, but Mary is in Elizabeth's mind throughout the film, burrowing into her consciousness, starting to affect her choices, in all areas of her life."

Two Films, Three Queens
A year after the #MeToo Oscars, both films fit with a new desire to tell women's stories better onscreen, even if The Favourite took 20 years to bring to cinemas. As Josie Rourke says, we need, "new accounts of historical figures that tell better emotional, historical and political truths about women's lives."

Whether either of them portrays complete historical truth is another matter. But given that the historical records we have of these women's lives were mostly left by men, they are no doubt as a valid a way to look at that history as the versions that went before them.

We've provided a B1-B2 resource on Mary Queen of Scots and the theme of the history we like to tell, including a downloadable video.

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Notion(s) culturelle(s) : "Lieux et formes du pouvoir"