Saoirse Ronan as Mary Queen of Scots
Saoirse Ronan as Mary Queen of Scots 

FILM

“It’s not just about painting historic women as iconic and powerful – it’s also about seeing them as vulnerable”

Emily Baker chats to Mary Queen Of Scots director Josie Rourke about choreographing rape scenes, the pressure of being a woman in power and why we should rewrite history

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By Emily Baker on

The Pool: What drew you to film and to Mary’s story in particular?

Josie Rourke: The initial draw was that Saoirse [Ronan] was attached to it. I loved the idea of getting to work with her, and my spidey sense was tingling about the way Mary had been portrayed. The movie is based on a book by John Guy – a very vivid writer, but also a forensic historian, who had put aside everything that had been written and supposed about Mary, and went right back to the source materials. He found that people had been ripping letters out of archives, publishing books slut shaming her – there was a real smear campaign. She was painted as someone who was too emotional to lead and too sexual to be competent and make good judgements. For me, Mary is one of those figures in history who feels like she’s been painted by the pre-raphaelites – always leaning backwards, she could be dead or she could be readying herself for sex. There’s something supine and either overly sexual or overly sentimental about who she is. What I wanted to do was to take her out of Tate Britain and put her into the Tate Modern.

TP:  Do you think having a woman’s eye over these stories makes a difference?

JR: As artists we can imagine things that are beyond our experience and that’s a big part of our craft, our competence and our joy; imagining people we are not in situations we are not in. But there is also deep value in coming from our own identity to try and bring our own reflections to stories like this. Women don’t have as many heroic or epic figures from history as men do and so the ones we do have need re-telling, so we can bring all of our humanity and all of our truth and all of our experience to them. It’s not just about painting them as iconic, strong and powerful – it’s also about seeing them as vulnerable, and that they get their period and their sex lives are intensely complicated, that the choices that they’re making about their fertility are partly political and partly personal. Until we delve back in and start to re-tell those stories that way, we’ll never have the tools that we need in our history for women to lead and to be taken seriously and compassionately in the present.

TP: The film is mostly about these women, but there’s also quite a large male cast. Does being the only woman in the room – both for the queens and for you – come with a certain amount of pressure?

JR: I obviously don’t think I’m a crowned head of Europe, but that was my experience early on in my career. I’d walk into rooms at the Royal Shakespeare Company and be the only woman there. I’ve been at board meetings where there have been three women on a board of 16. It’s an intense experience and, in a way, one of the aims in this movie is for men and for women to show what that things feels like. You feel this gigantic responsibility not to fail, not because of your own ambition, but because you are aware that you’re performing a test and it’s a test that you have to pass in order for other people to have that opportunity.

Until we delve back in to history and start to re-tell these stories, we’ll never have the tools that we need in our history for women to lead and to be taken seriously and compassionately in the present

TP: The sticks women beat themselves and each other with – childlessness, promiscuity, jealousy – they appear to be the same for Mary and Elizabeth as they are for women today.

JR: I don’t think that we have properly worked through those questions. People often ask me what I think feminism is and a really interesting thing happened when we were doing the end captions. The central one is about Elizabeth and the first draft I wrote read: “Elizabeth never married, never had a child and never named a successor. She reigned for 45 years.” Someone read it and flipped it back the other way around, so it read: “She reigned for 45 years. She never did this that and the other.” That’s the best example I’ve ever come across to explain what feminism is, because what we need to be able to do is to flip that narrative around.

TP: And it always seems to be other people pushing that portrayal of women – for example, the apparent fighting between Kate Middleton and Meghan Markle

JR: That’s just desperately sad. I saw that on the front page of a newspaper and I felt completely crestfallen. I think there’s a desire to see women fight. Some of that is sexualised in a really naff way, and at its most difficult and divisive it is a way to undermine leadership. When men fight each other it strengthens people’s perception of their ability to lead, and when women fight each other, it dismantles it – they’re emotional, they’re distracted.

TP: The sex scenes in the film show a wide spectrum of how women experience sex – there is an oral-sex scene with a strong female gaze, a purposeful impregnation and a rape. Was it important for you to distinguish between the three?

JR: What’s important about those three moments is that they’re all political acts. In the “incitement to impregnate scene”, as I call it, Mary has not had the opportunity to experience the anger at her betrayal but there is an absolute and very Mary-like need to keep moving forward. Her next chess move is to become pregnant, and to sire an heir with someone who is also a Stuart and so will have a powerful claim to the throne. In the rape scene, what was really important to me is that the sexual act is incredibly mundane. Although the emotional impact of it is devastating, it’s not one of those rapes that will become fetishised because of it’s flashy violence. In my work in the theatre and on this movie – for the past decade – I have never approached a sex scene without a choreographer. It’s really crucial for me to have everyone on set remember that it’s a movement sequence, in the same way that a dance or a fight is a movement sequence. Having sex is a complex sequence of movement and lining things up, it is essentially choreographic. What you’re doing is is getting practised enough at it – the scene in the movie that probably feels the most improvised but is probably the most rehearsed is the impregnation scene.

TP: There have been a few criticisms of historical inaccuracies in the film, for example Mary and Elizabeth never actually met.

JR: I don’t think that’s a criticism – I think that’s a Twitter grab. I have nothing but respect for anyone wanting to build their profile through social media – welcome to the 21st century, that’s the world we live in and we’re dealing with it. But in a dramatic sense, you do need them to meet. If I told that story through the letters they wrote to each other, I can’t even tell you how angry Twitter would be, but that’s fine, they can have that debate. The thing that does irritate me, is when people use that as a jumping-off point to say that the things in the movie that portray the misogyny at the time, and what these women confronted, how they were understood as a religious and unnatural aberration as women trying to lead, how heavily the men around them conspired to keep them apart and then destroy Mary also weren’t true. The idea that that’s also a fiction is really unhelpful.

@emilyrbakes

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Saoirse Ronan as Mary Queen of Scots 
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women in film
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