It's a moment that made some people in my screening of professional film critics giggle. Mary arranges for Henry to come to her bed chambers. (For what it's worth, he was known historically as the "great cock chick.") Mary insists they cannot have sex, knowing what a bastard child could portend for her goals. Henry suggests there is another way and proceeds to travel down her body. The camera stays on Mary's face as she orgasms.
For Rourke and Willimon, the scene -- along with another of Mary getting her period -- was a way to dig into how these women's daily lives were wrapped up in their loftier aims. "One thing we were talking about quite a bit is public versus private lives, and the way that these women were perceived, not only in a public setting, but also when we get access to see them in an intimate setting where they can take their masks off," Willimon explains. "Intimate moments gave us access to their humanity as these young women living their lives: Sex is part of life. Menstruation is part of life. And clearly in those scenes, we didn't want to reduce Mary to her body, but we also didn't want to make the mistake of just avoiding it."
Sex is also part of how Mary and Elizabeth are presented in opposition to one another. Mary seeks not only love, but to create an heir; Elizabeth shuns advances in order to be perceived more on par with the men in her orbit. The film was shot out of order, and Rourke remembers telling Robbie: "What's going to happen is, Mary's just going to have an orgasm and can you open your eyes like you're imagining that and you're stuck back at work?"
Aside from creating this conflict, it's also a way for Rourke to remind her audience that historical attitudes toward sex are not linear, and the Renaissance was by no means prudish. "You only have to dip into the poetry of John Donne or William Shakespeare to see how concerned men were with women's pleasure and women's bodies," says Rourke, who has directed many of Shakespeare's works on stage. "So actually, this sense of that as a relatively recent invention is incorrect." (The MPAA has, in the past, awarded NC-17 ratings to films where women receive oral sex.) If it's a shock for audiences, that's because it feels outside of the tropes we've come to expect from period pieces. (Aside from the likes of, say, Outlander.) "Up until this point, the genre sort of forgotten some essential truths about women's bodies," Rourke says.