Ginger and I watched Mary Queen of Scots this weekend. We knew the story, generally, but we weren’t really ready for what we saw. It is hard to imagine an 18-year-old widow arriving in Scotland to claim her throne in any context, but in the 15th century the array of forces mobilized against Mary were pernicious and formidable.
What stood out most of all in the film was her plight as a woman. Though the rightful monarch, Mary could legitimize her rule only through marriage. And yet any union with a man required that Mary forfeit her power to her husband. It is agonizing to watch, especially as Mary’s story is juxtaposed with her cousin, Queen Elizabeth, who ultimately orders Mary beheaded. “You murder your sister!” Mary accuses before the end. Yet she finds no quarter ultimately from either gender. Elizabeth refuses to marry and, partly as a result, maintains her hold on power in England. Yet strangely, it is Mary’s son, James, the only issue of an otherwise horrifying marriage, who succeeds both his mother and Queen Elizabeth, becoming King over all of England and Scotland upon Elizabeth’s death.
Ginger and I found ourselves spending way too much time on Google after the film ended, wanting to know more about this story. It was not the first movie to have that effect on us. I remember agonizing over the end of The English Patient for days. Seven Years a Slave did it to us well, and Lincoln.
The Director Afonso Cuarón said during the Academy Awards that an artist’s job is to see what others don’t. And then to bring that vision into the light. Surely he is right. But the defining virtue of any story-teller, regardless of how the artist chooses to render the tale, is the humanity of the rendering: the ability to make the character or characters somehow familiar, accessible, compellingly personal to those of us who have the good fortune to see or hear or read their tale.
Mary Stuart’s story is indeed remarkable, but there was something about the telling that made her especially vivid, full, and intensely human. As admirably powerful, tactical, and resolute as she is, Mary’s vulnerability and the challenge posed by her gender resonates most profoundly. We feel for her, whether she is right or wrong in her convictions, because we understand her motivations, recognize her challenge, empathize with her dilemma. It’s a strange thing to say, frankly, about a monarch who lived and died almost five centuries ago. And yet there is something affirming, too, and strangely comforting in that familiarity: the passage of time has apparently not changed the character of human stories. The feelings and emotions and joys and heartbreaks are common to all of us, whenever we live and whatever our station.
It is a reminder, too, of how important it is that we tell our stories, share our experiences, render the lives we live or encounter. In so doing we join the only dialogue that is universal, that does not have boundaries drawn by language or nationality or religion, that does not discriminate on the basis of gender or age, race or sexual orientation, that relies on the one thing we all share—the capacity to live and learn and feel.
Mary Queen of Scots famously said before her execution, “In my end is my beginning.” That, too, is true of our stories.