In the klieg-lit awards-show nominations for The Favourite (which I have yet to see, but do expect to love, especially knowing Olivia Colman is at the centre of the proceedings), another historical, queen-centered costume drama has been cast somewhat unfairly into shadow. Like The Favourite, it boasts compelling performances, but somehow it hasn’t quite taken off like its sisterly production.
Director Josey Rourke has given the narrative of Mary Queen of Scots an interesting, and insistently modern feminist turn, emphasizing the power of the two monarchs (Saoirse Ronan as Mary, Margot Robbie as Elizabeth I) as they both struggle to maintain their sovereignty against the political machinations of the men surrounding them at court. The correspondence between them is effusively sisterly, serving as a woman-to-woman counterpoint to the masculine ambitions constantly being foisted upon them by their squabbling, and at times treacherous dukes.
So why did I find myself annoyed much of the time I was watching it in the theatre? The immediate problem was my own attachment to historical veracity, which was troubled not only by the (openly admitted) entirely fabricated meeting between Mary and Elizabeth that served as the high dramatic moment of the film, but I found myself nagged in addition by Rourke’s decision to go with colour-blind casting. This meant that Elizabeth’s lead lady in waiting was played by Gemma Chan, a British actress of Chinese extraction, and the diplomat the Queen sent to carry her messages to her counterpart in Scotland was portrayed by Adrian Lester, an accomplished black actor. In an interview in The Guardian, the director dismissed this concern. “I sometimes feel,” says Rourke, “that people’s reaction to a person of colour in a film is more an index of their prejudices than about having a real issue with authenticity.” My immediate reaction, however, was to find these casting choices distracting and unwelcome.
So am I some sort of racist then? (Well yes, inevitably the privilege of whiteness manifests itself in my life; but is it just that direct?) Upon further reflection in the days after seeing the film, I’ve got a few other ideas that may get at the issue in a more nuanced way.
What if the problem is not mine, not Rourke’s, nor the film’s? The issue lies deeper, and has to do with our experience and fundamental expectations of the medium of narrative film itself.
Film scholar Daniel Bernardi has long proposed a critique of mainstream cinema – the meat and potatoes, Hollywood sort of film – predicated on a close analysis of the critical period in the first two decades of the 20th century, when the foundations were laid for what has sometimes been called the Classical Hollywood Narrative Style. These are the conventions that tell us actors are not supposed to look at the camera, that the camera should maintain a consistent spatial relationship with regard to the people in the scene (the 180-degree rule), and that the process of making the film needs to be completely hidden from view (the reason that seeing a boom mic intrude at the top of the frame is called a ‘goof’ on IMDB). Bernardi points out that the engine of narrative film, from those very early days onward, was dependent on the tension provided by white anxieties over race. One of his primary case studies is D.W. Griffith, whose Birth of a Nation clearly articulates Bernardi’s thesis, and was based on the director’s breakthrough experiments in his 400 or so one- and two-reel films for the Biograph studio that preceded his feature-length magnum opus. These shorter films also frequently engaged racial tropes—and Griffith discovered the power they had to motivate dramatic action (from cross-cut chase sequences to sometimes explicitly violent resolution). Bernardi asserts that such racist DNA worked its way into the most basic conventions of the emerging Hollywood Narrative Style, and that as a result, most commercial films function to normalize and transmit something of that world view.
Even if you resist the full implications of Bernardi’s work (hint: don’t just dismiss it out of hand), it is clear that the dominance of commercial film has made the medium itself deeply dependent on a relatively small number of narrative conventions. These have evolved over the last century, to be sure, but in many ways the twinned economic and ideological demands on film as a mass medium have served to create a sort of lowest common denominator strait jacket out of what is sometimes wishfully called the Seventh Art. Of course there are exceptions, but when Hollywood is cranking out hundreds of films a year, it becomes clear how rare those outliers are.
For most dramatic films, then, there seems to be a set of highly conventionalized standards, among which I would count 1) a more or less realist approach, 2) stories that have emotional plausibility to a modern audience, regardless of what may or may not have been the case in the past being portrayed, and 3) despite #1 above, a decided fluidity with chronologies and historical specificities if these must be dispensed with in the name of narrative structure and flow.
Mary Queen of Scots is a feast for the eyes; the cinematography is lush, the costumes impeccably detailed. It enchants the viewer with the chilly environs of Mary’s stone castle, and the misty glens of Scotland. We are meant to feel we are the proverbial fly on the wall, given privileged access to these privileged spaces. That’s the realist box ticked.
And yet, first-time film director Rourke has injected into this never-never land of cinematic time travel some of the patently anti-realist practices familiar to her from her extensive work in small, sometimes experimental theatre. The colour-blind casting is a major case in point. In the decidedly anti-realist context of the theatre such decisions don’t read so radically—witness the number of creative restagings of Shakespeare alone that set MacBeth in Haiti (Orson Welles) or Much Ado About Nothing in early 1980s Gibraltar (Rourke’s own 2011 production), with a range of talented actors of various ethnic and racial backgrounds. They bring something new to the well-worn lineaments of these familiar plays, and while there may be debate over a particular actor’s performance or this or that directorial choice, they are not subject to the same strait-jacket of realist constraints one encounters in film.
While lush and visually beautiful, I think the weak link in Rourke’s freshman go at the big screen is the unresolved internal tension that exists between the fundamentally realist, ‘you are there’ impress of the film as a whole and the decidedly anachronistic elements like its feminism and colour-blind casting—even if creative and desirable—introduced by the director.
I’m growing increasingly convinced that Bernardi is right—and that there’s something about mainstream narrative film itself that propagates this sort of thing. One has to wonder how it might be undone, or if there is a very basic structural problem when it comes to these big, expensive entertainments. What is to be done?