LONDON – Josie Rourke, the director of Mary Queen Of Scots, has a request. “Can I appeal to you,” she says midway through an interview with a handful of journalists in London last December (2018), “not to call two or three movies in which women have leading roles a ‘trend’.
“It’s what should be happening more often, right?”
Rourke, the artistic director of London’s prestigious Donmar Warehouse theatre, has made her debut as a feature film director with Mary Queen Of Scots, a tale that deals with the 16th century relationship between Queen Elizabeth I of England and Queen Mary I of Scotland. It opens on Feb 28.
“While Mary and Elizabeth’s story has been told many times, I asked the screenwriter behind (political drama) House Of Cards to write this story because I wanted them taken seriously as politicians and to understand what leadership meant to them and what the cost of that power was.
“We can never see change take a hold of society until we have enough cultural points on our map by which to navigate. And I wanted to create another of those points.”
To make her cultural point, Rourke has two high-powered actresses, Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie, play Mary and Elizabeth, respectively. Irish actress Ronan, 24, has been attached to a Mary Queen Of Scots film since she was a teenager.
“I signed up to play Mary when I was 18 and was attached to it the whole time but it just took ages to get the right screenwriter involved and to figure what part of the story we wanted to tell,” she says.
The film is a meditation on what it means to be a woman in power during the 16th century. “Mary and Elizabeth in this film are two sides of the same coin,” says Ronan.
She adds: “Mary is younger and more naive in thinking she should be able to have it all, have the power and a family and everything that she wants. Elizabeth has been through a little bit more and realises that you have to choose one or the other.
“It is really interesting to have these two women ruling at the same time but doing it very differently. You see how they were pushed to opposite ends of the spectrum.”
Australian actress Robbie, 28, agrees. “I think there’s a particular pressure on women not to express forms of emotion. Elizabeth’s journey in this film is a very extreme version of that where you see her cut ties with her humanity and become this statuesque figure of a monarch.”
Despite its Renaissance setting, many audiences and critics have spotted a contemporary relevance.
“It really does feel timely,” says Robbie, “and I think a lot of that is what Josie brought to it and her vision for the piece. She certainly wove the thematics around female experience, especially in that time, and it is very easy to find parallels with what we’re dealing with now, in gender politics, being in positions of power, choosing family or career, any of those kinds of conversations.”
Rourke, meanwhile, says that while any version of the past is a representation, it is the film-makers’ duty to speak to the present. “And if people feel it’s modern because it is talking about women’s stories,” she adds, “then that is because while women’s stories have always existed, our opportunity to tell them as women is relatively fresh.”
Women, says the director, are the theme of the movie. “In a way, it is both exciting and slightly sad that people think the film is incredibly modern.
“What that really tells us is that not enough women have been given the opportunity to make films, particularly set in this era of history. It shouldn’t be remarkable.”
Robbie received nominations from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (Bafta) and the Screen Actors Guild for best supporting actress.
She had initially passed on the role though as she felt intimidated by the potential comparisons to Cate Blanchett, Vanessa Redgrave, Helen Mirren and Judi Dench, all of whom have turned in memorable on-screen performances as the ‘Virgin Queen’.
“Everyone is well aware that some of the world’s most incredible actresses have portrayed Elizabeth already, and while it is incredible to join that legacy, there are some big shoes to fill,” she says. “Also, I said that I didn’t know how to play a queen. I’ve got nothing in common with a queen.”
Rourke, however, persuaded her by saying that she did not want Robbie to play a queen. She wanted her to play a woman.
The actress muses: “And now I’ve had a chance to explore Elizabeth and to see her human side – the woman beneath the crown. I’ve found a way to relate to her and I’m grateful to have joined that legacy.”
Mary Queen Of Scots opens Feb 28.
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