Clash of two Queens… or a dramatic historical catfight?
There have been many films and TV dramas doucumenting the lives of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots and Queen Elizabeth I. It’s easy to understand why the lives of Mary & Elizabeth have been brought to the screens due to the drama, romance, suspense, and conflict of the period … everything which makes a great historical drama!!
For anyone interested, I’m going to give a brief overview of Mary Stuart & Elizabeth Tudor (hope my Tudor and Stuarts module leader is proud of me). Mary was born in 1542, daughter to King James V of Scotland and the French Mary of Guise. Mary was only six days old when she was crowed queen in 1542, she was born in a tumultous time, as King Henry VIII of England invaded her homeland of Scotland. At the height of this war, Mary’s father died. he was left with no other living heirs other than Mary. As was the custom at the time Mary obviously did not rule as a child but instead, others ruled on her behalf. Her fathers death made her more than just the Queen of Scots. Mary was the great-grandaughter of Henry VII of England, Mary was next in line to the English throne … plot twist! Her grandmother was Mary Tudor who was the sister of the infamous Henry VIII (famed for having so many wives! and probably not being Britains greatest monarch, but thats a story for another time). Elizabeth I was the daughter of Henry VIII ( her father ordered the execution of her mother, Anne Boleyn, which in turn, effected Elizabeths legitimacy to the throne – but thats an enitrely different story and film).
Henry VIII attempted to arrange a marriage between his son Edward ( who ruled England as a young child from the years 1547-1553 before his premature death) and Mary which was known as the ‘rough wooing’. Marriage amongst relations was not unusual, it helped strengthen claims and political alliances but instead, Mary moved to France at five years old and later married Francis, Dauphin of France who, shortly after became King of France.
Therefore Mary was Queen of Scotland, married a French King, and had claims to the English throne! she was very powerful indeed. But nonetheless, Francis died, leaving Mary a widow at the age of 18. It is also worth knowing that Mary was a Catholic and her cousin, Elizabeth, who became Queen of England in 1558 was a Protestant. This was a period fraught with religious division and conflict post English Reformation. This is essentially where the movie begins with Mary returning to Scotland (techinically past the bit where Mary was getting her head chopped off in a flashback vision). .
Many hardcore hsitorians (which I would like to point out, I’m not) don’t go to the movies for ‘fun’! historians have tended, first and foremost, to fact-check them with a fine tooth comb and then proceed to complain about it online; websites have beed dedicated to separating “reel history” from “real history”.
I, on the otherhand felt that such an approach to history films is problamatic. I like to go to the cinemas with the intention of not taking myself too seriously, and enjoying the experience with a bucket of popcorn. But in this case, that didn’t happen.
Personal thoughts: It’s woke, but wrong – let’s discuss.
What is likely to attract audiences to this film are the popular actresses. Mary is brought to the screen as a headstrong leader played by the marvelous Saoirse Ronan. The actress follows in the footsteps of Vanessa Redgrave, who performed the role of the doomed monarch with grace. Much of this movie is dedicated to Mary’s attempts at becoming the successor to the English throne by Queen Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie).
Mary, Queen of Scots, wants to be an uplifitng story of female leadership in a male-dominated world, and thus wants the audience to delve deep into the disputes between Catholic Mary, her protestant lords, and the Protestant Elizabeth I.
Josie Rourke (director), has an eye for elaborate display of ceremony during the 16th centruy, she makes the dull conversations of power-struggle seem lively; especially with the regal costumes designed by Alexander Bryne, who’s known mostly for her work on several marvel movies. Bryne’s outfits enhance the difference between the English court and the dark ‘ruggedness’ of the Scotish courts.
However, despite the marvelous array of colours, the movie is not without its flaws – as a student who has studied the 16th century courts, these flaws stuck out like a sore thumb. Rarely has a movie, which depicts 16th century court life progressively relates to the 21st century. For instance, its royal courts are astoundingly multi-racial, including Gemma Chan as one of Elizabeth’s ladies-in-waiting, and Adrian Lester as a diplomat, this is not as serious as my other points, but it has attracted attention. Director Josie Rourke attemps to be creative, rather than historically accurate. Both Chan and Lester are playing characters who were white in real life. Furthermore, David Rizzio (Ismael Cruz Córdova), Mary’s secretary and rumoured lover, comes out as transgender (“Be whoever you wish, you make a lovely sister” the woke queen assured).
Mary’s accent is questionable: in the movie, it’s Scottish. In fact, most likely Mary spoke with a French accent. Mary became Queen of Scotland shortly after her birth. Her French mother shipped her to France when she was five, where she later married the French heir. When she became a widow she returned to Scotland – realistically she should have a French accent.
Darnley was gay? Mary’s second husband Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, thinks marrying Mary will make him King of Scotland. She soon discovers that he is a drunken bafoon, and not a very nice man, the movie suggests that he is a figure of ridicule than the monster he truely was.
The film portrays him as a homosexual, he beds courtier, David Rizzio, instead of his wife on his wedding day. Ultimately, he’s pressured into killing his former lover to avoid being exposed as a “sodomite” before meeting his own assassination at Kirk o’Field. Mary was blamed for the deaths of Rizzio and Darnley, which led to the events of her abdication and her journey to England to seek safety with her cousin, Elizabeth, who impriosned her as a threat to her throne.
quick note – The film suggets that Mary did not abdicate her throne as we see her refuse to do so, granted Mary would have abdicated reluctantly due to the threats against her life but the film suggests Mary defiantly refuses abdication
“What the Scottish nobles wanted to do was get a woman, especially a Catholic woman, out of power, they were almost swiftboating her”.Beau Willimon (Screenwriter)
Mary married again, he wasn’t a nice guy either – unlucky: James Hepburn, the Earl of Bothwell, raped Mary and forced her to marry him. In the film he’s depicted as almost incidental instead of the villian he actually was.
Signing the death warrant: It did not take place with a dozen male advisors around her. In fact, it was a more private affair, it was claimed that she did not want the execution to take place – she resited for years, she did not want to execute a fellow female monarch. She was almost willing to allow Mary to be her heir, but favoured her young son James, who was also a Catholic.
The biggest falsehood is the meeting of two monarchs. The climactic scene near the end of the film has Mary and Elizabeth meeting in a shed, the two of them veiled from each other by cloth, Mary soves away the cloth in a very aggressive manner – this never happened! well, there’s no evidence to suggest otherwise; besides some bizarre conspiracy theories.
Documents show the two queens came incredibly close to striking a deal for their peaceful co-existence.
Finally, it is very clear, as the above picture suggests – Elizabeth ages rapidly in the film with her appearance changing from her outbreak of the pox with her rough skin complexion that she tries to mask with thick white make-up and her thinning hair. Despite the efforts to illustrate physical flaws Elizabeth (Robbie) still has her pearly whites! – not how Elizabeth is remembered and highly unlikely. This is a stark contrast to Mary who is a fresh-faced 44 year old woman in 1587. Mary does not age at all, or show any physical imperfections any any point in the film. John Guy (author of My Heart is my own, which inspired this film) wrote about how ill health affected Mary’s appearance and she had put on weight but the film suggests that she keeps her beauty until her dying day.
As a viewer I can overlook these errors (I doubt this film was intended to be a history lesson) Nonetheless! I tried but failed.
Overall, the film deals with very serious issues ranging from religious to political tension to violence, sexism and brutality but I do feel like a tiny bit of humour, even the odd smile here or there would be suffice – there may have been a reason for this, as mentioned it does portray serioius issues but for me this film was lacking entertainment value. I realise I’ve been scrupulous focusing too much on historical accuracy – i’m a history student, it’s my job.
Despite what Mary endured: the death of three husbands, betrayed by Elizabeth, and ultimately suffered a gruesome execution I’m still going to give it a 2.5/10.
There is so much more I could discuss about this period of history but I am aware that this is already a lengthy review. Instead of recommending this film I can highly reccomend My Heart is my own by John Guy.