The House of Stuart ruled Scotland from 1371 to 1603, and Great Britain and Ireland from 1603 to 1714, minus the Cromwell interregnum of 1649-1660. That period, covering nearly three-and-a-half centuries, saw some of the bloodiest turmoil in the history of Britain, with thousands of battlefield deaths and two Stuart monarchs losing their heads. One of those monarchs—Mary, the last queen of Scotland—for better or worse set the stage for events that allowed her son, James I, to gain the throne of a united Britain. The dynasty ended with Mary’s great-great granddaughter Anne, a depressive alcoholic beset by ill health and constant tragedy. The courts of both queens were vipers’ nests in which backstabbing intrigue, sometimes literally, was the rule.
Two recent films—Josie Rourke’s Mary Queen of Scots and Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite—serve as cinematic bookends to this period of British history. Stylistically they could not be more different, and one makes a bolder, more justified bid for the audience’s attention. But both are worth seeing just by virtue of the lead performances, which are—if you will not mind my saying so—regally entertaining.
Featuring a screenplay by Beau Willimon based on a biography by John Guy, Mary Queen of Scots begins in 1561, with the nineteen-year-old Mary (Saiorse Ronan) returning to Scotland from France after the death of her husband, Francis II. Mary’s return is problematic for many in the ruling class. Her half-brother James, Earl of Moray (James McArdle), who has been serving as regent in her absence, is less than happy to relinquish power to her. Calvinist reformer John Knox (David Tennant) makes it excruciatingly plain that, in his view, a ruler of Scotland who is both female and Catholic is a stench in God’s nostrils.
The consternation of Moray and Knox, however, is nothing compared with that of Elizabeth, Queen of England (Margot Robbie). A prisoner in the Tower only a few years before, Elizabeth is nervous about any other monarch in the British Isles—particularly since Mary is adamant that she is the rightful queen in the south as well as the north.
The progress of Mary Queen of Scots will be familiar to anyone with even a cursory knowledge of her history, including her ill-advised marriage to Darnley (Jack Lowden), Darnley’s murder of Rizzio (Ismael Cruz Cordova), Darnley’s murder in turn by Bothwell (Martin Compston), Mary’s abdication and exile in England, and her eventual appointment with the headsman at Fotheringhay.
Mary Queen of Scots looks appropriately chilly, bleak and comfortless, thanks to the cinematography of John Mathieson and the production design of James Merifield. Rourke and her crew make it plain that life was hard in the 16th century, even for royalty. But although the film is impressive visually, dramatically it is more dutiful than exciting. There is a certain squareness endemic to historical films, especially those telling well-known stories. Mary Queen of Scots not only doesn’t avoid that squareness, it embraces and makes love to it. Too many scenes seem strictly expositional, to the point that the film’s two-hour running time becomes a slog through the Scottish gloom.
But there is excitement in Mary Queen of Scots, and it emanates almost entirely from the performance of Saiorse Ronan. Simply to see a still photo of Ronan as Mary is to see the regal power and deep emotion she brings to the role. Ronan scarcely seems in Mary Queen of Scots like the same actor who appeared in Brooklyn and Lady Bird, and you are awed all over again by her. (Some viewers have complained that Ronan’s accent is more Irish than Scottish, with one saying it was as if Matt Damon had used a Brooklyn instead of a Southie accent in Good Will Hunting. I, however, was not bothered by it.)
All the acting award nominations Mary Queen of Scots received went to Margot Robbie, which strikes me as unfair. In comparison with Ronan, Robbie is very good but not outstanding. Of course, there is a long honor roll of actors who have played the Virgin Queen, from Bette Davis to Cate Blanchett, and it’s hard to stand out in that august company. However, I suspect that much of the acclaim for Robbie’s performance really belongs to Jenny Shircore and her team of makeup artists, who transformed the gorgeous Robbie into the smallpox-ravaged Elizabeth.
Any film about Mary Queen of Scots has to deal with a thorny historical problem: Mary and Elizabeth never met face-to-face. Every one of these films has had to work around this; the solution provided by Rourke and Willimon is both supremely elegant and supremely unbelievable.
From the quotidian filmmaking of Mary Queen of Scots, we turn to the flamboyance of The Favourite, a film sired by Luis Bunuel out of Richard Brinsley Sheridan.
Featuring an original screenplay by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, The Favourite is a fanciful treatment of the very real historical rivalry between Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz) and Abigail Hill, later Masham (Emma Stone), for the favors of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman).
As the movie opens, Sarah has long been the chief bitch in the kennel of Queen Anne’s court. Thanks to Anne, Sarah and her husband (Mark Gatiss) are Duke and Duchess of Marlborough, and owners of Blenheim Palace, the grandest non-royal residence in England. (Sarah does remonstrate with Anne over the extravagance.) Sarah’s sway over Anne is unquestioned; a frown or sarcastic remark from her is enough to ruin any aspiring courtier.
The entrance of Abigail Hill to the royal court—ingloriously, falling out of a public coach into the mud—goes unnoticed at first. Abigail is Sarah’s cousin, a high-born woman reduced to poverty by the improvidence of her late father. Sarah is the opposite of welcoming to her cousin, and even the other servants work against her, failing to warn her to put on gloves before scrubbing the floor with lye soap.
The Favourite is the story of how Abigail manages to sidestep Sarah and the rest of the court into the Queen’s confidence. The powerful Sarah and the spiteful maids are far from her only obstacles. There is Harley (Nicholas Hoult), the vindictive prime minister, who thinks nothing of underlining a point with Abigail by kicking her into a ditch. There is also Samuel Masham (Joe Alwyn), Harley’s horny underling, who thinks Abigail a fine bit of crumpet.
Finally, there is the Queen herself. Anne is the most powerful person in England, with the ability to raise or ruin everyone she sees; yet, surrounded by flunkies and backstabbers, she has no freedom at all, and she is just intelligent enough to realize this. In constant pain from gout and myriad other afflictions, she is ragingly paranoid most of the time, screaming at servants and courtiers over fancied slights. Doting over her seventeen pet rabbits (the reason for these pets, and their number, is heartbreaking), Anne seeks true friendship, but has no way of judging friends other than those servile enough to obey her command to rub her gouty leg.
The Favourite is masterful in changing our perceptions of the characters from scene to scene. Our heart aches for Abigail at first, but as she slowly works her stratagems (including one involving drugged tea and a whorehouse), we see her eventually exceed the entire court in guile and cruelty, which is saying something. The amusements of the court tell us everything, ranging from the trivial (duck racing) to the vicious (pelting a naked fat man with rotten fruit). In between we receive some jaw-dropping revelations, including a terpsichorean exhibition, well represented in the film’s trailer, that can only be described as Baroque breakdancing. Not since The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie have we seen such an indictment of the upper class.
In the end it is just Anne and Abigail, in a final scene that matches All About Eve in its bleak meditation on the emptiness of human ambition. Sarah, meanwhile, is down but not out; you must see the film to see how, but history tells us as much. The Favourite is superbly acted—especially by the three leads—and gorgeous to look at, thanks to Robbie Ryan’s photography, Fiona Crombie’s production design, and Sandy Powell’s costumes. All in all, The Favourite is as opulent a portrayal of a moral vacuum as you will ever see.