I normally love a good historical drama, as long as it’s quality stuff. I was in two minds whether to go and see the latest telling of the Mary Queen of Scots story because despite the fact that it featured two very good actresses – Margot Robbie and Saoirse Ronan, and was based on a recent well-researched history by a renowned Tudor scholar, the critics were lukewarm.
The essence of the story is the Game of Thrones rivalry between Mary and her cousin Elizabeth I of England. It’s set in Tudor times – the 1500s. They were both granddaughters of Henry VII of England, and Mary was thought by many to have a better claim to the English throne than her cousin Elizabeth, who as daughter of Anne Boleyn was considered by some, including at one stage her own father Henry VIII, to be illegitimate.
Mary was raised in France to marry the French dauphin and become Queen of France, but he died as a teenager and she returned to Scotland at the age of 18. The film starts at this point and for good dramatic reasons. Mary was young, attractive and possibly fertile. Any man who managed to marry her could potentially become the founder of the next ruling house of England.
Cousin Elizabeth was only nine years older, still marriageable and constantly beseeched by her advisers including faithful William Cecil (played here by Guy Pearce looking suitably statesmanlike) to marry, have an heir and settle the succession once and for all with a protestant heir.
But she wouldn’t. She probably feared what did in fact happen to her cousin in the end. Mary’s second and third husbands, the English Lord Darnley and the Scottish Lord Bothwell, did try to manipulate and subjugate her and rule in their own right.
So. Elizabeth‘s not going to have a child. Mary does marry and has a son by Lord Darnley. But things are by no means settled. Mary is hated by many of her own Scottish nobles, for being a Catholic, and also for being a woman. John Knox, grim leader of the Protestant Reformation in Scotland, painted her as a Jezebel. He fulminated against BOTH Mary and Elizabeth, calling them the ‘Monstrous Regiment of Women’ – and they both feared his influence, especially Elizabeth.
So Mary’s son eventually becomes King of England AND Scotland – James I – but a lot happens before that. Plots, marital murders and conspiracies to overthrow Elizabeth, in the last of which Mary is implicated and so, off with her head! No spoiler there – we see her ascending the scaffold right at the start.
The story stays fairly true to the history with the major exception that it has a scene in which the two royal cousins meet, which they never did. The consultant historian, John Guy, says he has no problem with the filmmaker putting the meeting in for dramatic purposes and I suppose that’s okay, because they did communicate a lot by letter, and they nearly did meet at one stage.
Where I do have a little problem is where the story is tainted by modern identity politics. Director Josie Rourke has done the fashionable thing of colourblind casting, so that the actor who plays Elizabeth’s ambassador to the Scottish court, Lord Thomas Randolph – a real historical figure – is the black actor Adrian Lester, who everyone will remember as the brains behind the gang of good-hearted tricksters in the English caper show Hustle.
Josie Rourke said ‘I can’t think of any reason why I shouldn’t cast a black actor in that role’.
Well, I can. A black man with such a position of power in the royal court would have been extraordinary. It would have changed the context of the story. Now, I know there were dark-skinned people of African descent in Europe at the time, and Elizabeth may have had some at court – as servants, musicians and so on. Sure, Shakespeare’s Othello was both a black man – ‘The Moor of Venice’ – and a man of influence and power in a European court at about the same time. But he is seen as being an outlier; his race and skin colour are crucial to the plot. Imagine the howls of protest if someone tried to put on an Othello with a white actor playing the lead! And Othello is fiction. Mary Queen of Scots was a real historical personage, so there’s less excuse for changing the historical record in such an important way.
The film expresses modern sensibilities in other ways. Mary’s secretary, David Rizzio, is portrayed as gay, and he may well have been. It’s depicted as one of the reasons he’s murdered. But again I think this only muddies the truth. Rizzio was also an Italian Catholic, and this is the main reason Mary’s enemies murdered him, not homophobia. In fact they used the pretext of Mary’s and Rizzio’s friendship to accuse them of adultery.
On a broader level the film seems to suggest that Mary and Elizabeth would have been able to work out their differences well enough if not for the scheming, power-hungry men who surrounded them. Hmm. There are numerous records of poisonous exchanges between the two queens, but the film doesn’t show these. Easier to pander to the sensibilities of the #MeToo generation and not let the facts get in the way of a good story…
….a story in which Mary is a spirited lassie riding astride a horse with her hair flowing free, leading her troops in battle. Now, women did ride in those days, but noble ladies rode sidesaddle, they didn’t actually go to the battlefront, and women of Mary’s rank ALWAYS had their hair coiffed and capped!
In short, in a good historical drama you don’t expect a documentary, but you do expect an attempt at authenticity, otherwise it’s just soap opera in period costume and you might as well watch Game of Thrones instead.