Few real-life clashes are more tailor-made for movie melodrama than the battle royal between two 16th-century queens, Elizabeth I of England and her cousin, Mary Queen of Scots, who re-enact their bloody, sorry fates in “Mary Queen of Scots.”
As royal history fans know, it will not end well for Mary Stuart: She loses her head, and Elizabeth Tudor signed the death warrant.
This latest telling of the familiar story (now showing in New York and Los Angeles, expands to additional cities Dec. 21) is thoroughly compelling and as pro-Mary as previous films. This one, directed by Josie Rourke, stars three-time Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan (as Mary) and Oscar nominee Margot Robbie (Elizabeth).
Will the movie get the seal of approval from historians? Probably not, but keep in mind it’s tough to pack a lot of history in two hours.
“History is written by the winners, and Mary was a loser, but she’s a winner insofar as her son ended up ruling,” says John Guy, author of “Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart,” on which the film is based. “What I set out to do is get rid of the misconceptions and re-establish the story.”
Mary’s execution at age 44 sent her to instant immortality, never mind the arrogance that helped put her on the block that day in 1567.
By contrast, as described by historian Kate Williams in “The Betrayal of Mary, Queen of Scots: Elizabeth I and Her Greatest Rival,” the news of Mary’s death sent Elizabeth to her bed in shock, fury and tears, shouting that she never meant the death warrant to be carried out.
Elizabeth had refused to name her heir almost to the very end. When she died at age 69 in 1603, she was succeeded by the obvious closest relative, Mary’s son, King James VI of Scotland, the distant ancestor of all the monarchs who came after, including Queen Elizabeth II.
So who achieved true immortality? Hapless, heedless, headless Mary? Or Elizabeth I, widely considered one of the greatest monarchs in history? Maybe both. Mary’s accent is questionable: In the movie, it’s Scottish (Ronan is Irish). In fact, Mary probably spoke with a French accent. Mary became queen of Scotland shortly after her birth when her father King James V died. Her French mother shipped her to France when she was 5, where she later married the French heir. Then her husband died and she returned to Scotland at age 18, a fervent Catholic regarded with suspicion by Protestants.
Nobility wasn’t this diverse: The filmmakers hired a diverse cast: Elizabeth’s ambassador to Scotland is played by Adrian Lester (TV’s “Hustle”) and Bess of Hardwick, a famous English noblewoman of the era, is played by Anglo-Chinese actress Gemma Chan (“Crazy Rich Asians”). But it’s safe to say there were few Africans or Asians in 16th-century England, let Mary’s second husband Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, thinks marrying Mary will make him King of Scotland; she foolishly allows him to think so. She discovers too late he is a dope, a drunk and a thoroughly bad dude, but the movie suggests he’s more a figure of ridicule than the monster he really was.
The movie also posits he was a homosexual, that Mary caught him with her personal musician/secretary, David Rizzio, and that she had to force Darnley to impregnate her. Guy insists a sexual relationship between Darnley and Rizzio is “real history” and that prudish Victorians left it out of the record. “We’re not breaking new ground here,” adds screenwriter Beau Willimon.
It’s irrelevant to what came later, including the murders of Rizzio and Darnley. Mary was blamed for the latter, which started the series of events that led to her forced abdication and her fateful flight to England to seek safety with Elizabeth, who imprisoned her as a threat to her throne, given Mary’s constant carping that the English queen was illegitimate.
“What the Scottish nobles wanted to do was get a woman, especially a Catholic woman, out of power,” Willimon says. “They were almost swiftboating her.”Mary’s third husband wasn’t a good guy, either: James Hepburn, the Earl of Bothwell, raped Mary and forced her to marry him. But he’s depicted as almost incidental instead of the villain he actually was.
John Knox and the “lock her up” chorus: Another villain who tormented Mary was the fiery preacher (David Tenant) who led the Protestant Reformation in Scotland. He hated Catholics, the pope, and female sovereigns like Mary. The movie shows Knox ranting about Mary during a toxic sermon, whipping up a crowd chanting “Death to her!” Or was it “Lock her up!”?
Signing the death warrant: It did not take place with Elizabeth surrounded by a dozen male advisers. In fact, she signed it casually among other papers, and later claimed she thought the execution would not be carried out. She resisted for years executing a fellow female monarch.