In the Los Angeles movie theater where I saw Mary Queen of Scots, the woman sitting next to me gasped every time John Knox, played by David Tennant, called Mary a whore. Which is to say, there were times during the film where I had to check and see that she wasn’t hyperventilating because Tennant-as-Knox popped up roughly every 20 minutes to remind us that Mary was a big old whore.
Maybe the gasping woman had come into the theater expecting a very different sort of biopic. The kind Hollywood dutifully gives us every November: some plucky broad triumphs over a rigged system using only her charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talent, defeating the patriarchy at its own game without ever chipping her French manicure. Mary Queen of Scots and The Favourite aren’t that. Instead, they’re rage-filled blitzes of deceit and one-upmanship, where women are forced to fight like animals for the power ostensibly available to them, only to find that even being on top offers no protection.
As we were debriefing in the lobby after the movie, my friend asked, “What was up with that woman who kept yelping every time he said ‘whore’?”
“I know, right?” I told him. “It’s like, lady, have you really never been called a whore before?” And maybe she hadn’t. Maybe she’s been that lucky, but because of my own experiences, I found that hard to believe.
I’ve been familiar with the John Knox method of evaluating women—reducing them to a collection of holes that have either been poked too much or not enough—since at least middle school, and it was hard for me or my friend to see anything unbelievable enough there to gasp at.
But one of the problems my friend did have with the movie was the unbelievability of the gay subplot and the subsequent violence. In one scene, a gang of men burst into Mary’s private chambers and hold a knife to her pregnant belly as they stab her confidant and husband’s lover, David Rizzio, to death right in front of her. She strains and screams, completely powerless over the men she’s supposed to lead. My friend is right, like a lot of the scenes in what is ultimately not that great a movie, the whole thing seemed preposterous, bizarre, and unnecessary.
And while the murder might have been all three of those things, it wasn’t completely untrue. Though historians are divided on who was or wasn’t fucking Rizzio, what is true is that a group of armed men stormed into Mary’s private chambers, dragged Rizzio away, and stabbed him more than fifty times, threatening to murder their queen and her unborn child if she dared use her power to intervene.
In 2018, I’ve been struggling to wrap my head around what is and isn’t believable. A professor at one of the best colleges in America came forward with a story about being sexually assaulted by a man nominated for the Supreme Court of the United States, testified under oath, and instead of being believed, was forced from her home amid a hail of death threats while the man went on to become a judge on the highest court in America. I’m still trying to make myself understand that it really happened. In a country where Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony counts for nothing, it was easy for me to believe, in the dark of a theater, how Mary couldn’t make the men who were supposed to be her subordinates stop stabbing her friend to death. The two stories aren’t the same. The powerlessness was what resonated. I didn’t gasp because this year, I may have lost the ability to feel surprised.
Mary Queen of Scots had a convoluted plot that didn’t seem believable even when it was historically accurate. Margot Robbie as Queen Elizabeth and Saoirse Ronan as the titular Mary bandy back and forth over which one of them has a better claim to the throne than the other. Men whose names I didn’t quite catch come on and off screen; they’re all villains. A lot of them die for reasons I couldn’t follow. Some other year, that might have bothered me, but right now the panicked scenes where Elizabeth and Mary desperately strive to protect the power they have while men hide in the shadows waiting to reclaim that power was enough to make me shrug “fair enough,” and like a movie I probably would have criticized a couple of years ago.
This was another year in which women “came forward” with their stories of abuse at the hands of powerful men. I hate that term, “coming forward,” as if women had been hoarding the stories in some dark cave and are now shuffling out, feebly holding them up to the light. Coming forward implies that it was our choice to be back there in the first place. The term “story” is also insufficient. It sounds false, and when women “come forward with their stories” listeners inevitably tell them the narrative might not be accurate, they might not be telling it right, it might be completely made up. In 2018, I tried to comprehend the fact that I listened to Susan Collins tell women that she was “grateful for their courage and willingness to come forward” in the same speech where she concluded that she didn’t believe them. This year, I struggled to make myself keep believing that the truth matters even if it doesn’t win in the end.
The director of The Favourite, Yorgos Lanthimos, seems to understand that what I needed most this year was not a historically faithful retelling of Queen Anne’s life at court, but a story that felt true. His movie wasn’t quite a biopic. It was more of a fable about the ways that people try to steal power from one another. Sarah Churchill, a duchess, and Abigail, a fallen member of the gentry now working as a servant, fight each other for the queen’s attention, pausing only to fight side battles with men in order to earn the right to keep fighting.
At the film’s premiere Lanthimos told The Hollywood Reporter that history didn’t matter as much to him as a story that felt real: “We did the research initially and we very early on decided that we were going to first of all include the things that help to tell the story we want to tell, but then we wanted to be able to veer off to any direction we thought was necessary in order to make this a powerful, complex film. Some of the things in the film are accurate and a lot aren’t.”
For example, The Favourite opens with Abigail, a young woman hoping to find work among Queen Anne’s servants, smiling at a man in a carriage. The man begins masturbating and later pushes her into a pile of shit as she tries to get out. After feeling repulsed by Brett Kavanaugh’s petulant blubbering then watching in horror as statements such as “I like beer” were enough for his story to win and Blasey Ford’s to lose, watching Abigail eat a faceful of shit just felt real.
Every time Abigail gets pushed down by a man in The Favourite, which happens about as often as John Knox calls Mary Stuart a whore, it felt accurate in a year full of women’s truths and men’s pettiness.
But I also like the fact that women aren’t let off the hook in these movies either. In another Oscar year, Queen Anne wouldn’t have made the cut for the subject of a woman-centered biopic. As Edward Gregg writes in his biography Queen Anne: “Queen Anne is often portrayed as a pasteboard character, a dull, weak, irresolute woman dominated by favorites, her policies determined by the outcomes of bedchamber quarrels.” When she’s remembered at all, it’s through images of stuffy-looking lace and gingerbread mansions. She doesn’t seem a likely role for Meryl Streep or Cate Blanchett. Olivia Colman, however, plays her perfectly as a spoiled, indecisive monarch running a country like a garden party. She’s easily manipulated by the last person she’s spoken to, and ultimately can’t tell what’s true and what’s false. The performance feels real this year because of Donald Trump, obviously, but also because of the lie-spewing women he surrounds himself with, and the powerful women like Susan Collins who wring their hands and say they just don’t know what to believe.
When Abigail distractedly gives her new husband a handjob on their wedding night while plotting the next move in her violent chess match against Sarah Churchill, it was played for comedy. And it was funny, but maybe it wouldn’t have been as funny if we hadn’t just spent a year watching people making pathetic power-grabs by jerking off a truly horrible man in order to keep an eye on what they really wanted.
The only thing that really bothered me about Mary Queen of Scots was the way that the movie reduced Queen Elizabeth to an insecure spinster undone by the thought of another woman’s pregnant belly. I grew up with Cate Blanchett as my OG Elizabeth, and while the two films in which she played the queen do overly focus on her supposed romances, Blanchett as Elizabeth is always in control of her own story, which was how I liked her. At the end of each movie, the bad guys always lose. Ten years ago—hell, two years ago—that’s all I was really looking for in my lady-centric costume drama.
In the real Queen Elizabeth’s speech to the troops set to battle the Spanish Armada, she famously said, “I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too.” When we read it in middle school, my English teacher taught it as some feminist mantra, but to me, it always sounded like an apology. Perhaps that’s why Elizabeth: The Golden Age leaves it out entirely, opting instead for a vaguely similar remix Blanchett delivers as if she’s already won.
Mary Queen of Scots visits the idea in the way I read it. In a letter to Mary explaining why she’s got to go back on her promise and have her cousin beheaded, after all, Queen Elizabeth writes, sadly, “I am a man now,” as if committing violence against a woman is just what she has to do in order to keep that top seat. The more I thought about it, the more I wondered if there isn’t a place for both versions of Queen Elizabeth in our retelling of her story. An Elizabeth who wins and feels shitty about winning is certainly a departure from the depictions we’ve had in the past, but it might be a draft of the story that makes the most sense right now. In The Favourite, too, power and gender get all mixed together: Sarah Churchill wears a pantsuit every time she shoots birds out of the sky, as if killing something with less power than you is an inherently masculine act.
And if power is a game invented by men, what do these women get for playing? In Mary Queen of Scots, Elizabeth seems to decay with every battle for the crown against her cousin, her white mask of makeup crumbles from a pockmarked face, her hair falls out. Mary winds up headless. Sarah Churchill is exiled after she loses her fight for the queen’s favor to a younger woman, who in turn finishes the movie miserably simulating fellatio on a monarch who seems equally disgusted by the attention. In both the theaters where I saw these movies, the audience stayed in their seats for the closing credits. We needed time to process what we’d just seen.
At the end of Elizabeth: The Golden Age, Queen Elizabeth slowly fades into pure white light and text at the bottom of the screen brags about her triumphs. In Mary Queen of Scots and The Favourite, nobody wins because the game was rigged all along, which may or may not be accurate, but after this year, felt exhaustingly true.