Mary Queen of Scots

When Reign came out, I was ready and waiting each week for every new installment of the four-season-long television show that chronicled the life of Mary Stuart, from her arrival in France to her fateful end. However, I’ve always been a sucker for a big-budget film production, and the year after Reign ended, Mary Queen of Scots was released.

Like most retellings of the life of Mary Stuart (played here by Saoirse Ronan), Elizabeth I features prominently in this film, and while clearly a supporting character, Elizabeth (Margot Robbie) is definitively the deuteragonist. The lives of Mary and Elizabeth are too entangled to tell the story of one without the other. Elizabeth: The Golden Age, starring Cate Blanchette, released almost a decade after Elizabeth (1998), featured Mary – played there by Samantha Morton. Even Reign, where Mary was played by Adelaide Kane, and featured Rachel Skarsten as Elizabeth I. There is no getting around it; they are forever linked in death as they were in life.

They were cousins, after all.

Mary Queen of Scots begins with Mary Stuart’s triumphant return to Scotland in the wake of the death of her first husband, Francis (only briefly appearing and uncredited at that), the King of France at the age of 16. Scotland, however, has undergone a radical change since Mary was forced to flee as a child. Staunchly Catholic and allied with the Pope, as was every European Monarch at the time, England had essentially become Protestant under Elizabeth’s rule. This is despite Elizabeth’s efforts to craft a kingdom where Catholics and Huguenots could live peacefully.

Religious warfare was a constant threat throughout their lives due to Henry VIII’s reign. Any history buff will be able to point to his decision to split from the Catholic Church in order to marry Anne Boleyn (among other reasons) as part of the strife. But by the time Mary Queen of Scots takes place, James Stewart (James McArdle), her older half-brother and Regent, is irked at her return, and the damage to Scotland which would ultimately lead to Mary’s undoing has already set in, thanks to John Knox (David Tennant), the founder of the Church of Scotland – their answer to the Church of England. Because the film covers a large period, some of the critical events shaping the final outcome were shaded over in favor of the more dramatic beats. These include the Chaseabout Raid – the rebellion that James Stewart, Earl of Moray, led against his sister in the wake of her marriage to Henry Darnley (Jack Lowden) – and the murder of David Rizzio (Ismael Cruz Córdova), Mary’s close friend and confidant.

At its heart, Mary Queen of Scots is a romantic look at the life and death of its titular character. Her claims as the rightful Queen of England, while through a modern lens can be viewed as arrogant, are essentially true by the laws of their time – especially if, had she and Elizabeth gone to war, and Mary had won. But that conflict has always been viewed through two lenses, as well. When it comes to claims to a throne, most often, might makes right, and Mary and Elizabeth never had the chance to hash it out because forces conspired against both of them. Elizabeth simply had the good fortune to outlive almost all of her enemies and never provided them with the best weapon that they could use against her. A child, let alone a son.

Still, when it comes to stories about Mary and Elizabeth, there is a desire to wholesale craft material that has no place in their life story. Very nearly at the end of the film, there is a scene where Mary flees to England and seeks refuge from Elizabeth.

During this scene, the two Queens meet in secret, which is one thing that everybody agrees never happened. Many of Elizabeth’s closest advisors would have believed that had she met with Mary, she would have identified with Mary’s plight – which was somewhat close to how she was treated in the wake of her mother’s execution.

For Elizabeth and Mary to meet would court disaster. Another scene involves the negotiations between Elizabeth and Mary in the wake of Mary’s return, with all of Elizabeth’s advisors warning her that this could mean that Mary plans to make a campaign for the Throne of England. Elizabeth outright states that they couldn’t ask for a better successor to her than Mary – something she patently never did. It would simply open her up to more plotting and scheming to remove her from her throne.

The reason for additions like these is understandable. They make the story more dramatic. Mary and Elizabeth were two strong, confident, capable women who reigned in a time when men were believed to be the only ones capable of ruling over a kingdom. All of their advisors were men, and almost all of them were scheming behind their Queen’s backs. Despite their wariness of their advisors, there is one thing that has always been clear about monarchies in England and Scotland, they lacked the centralized, authoritarian power that France wielded. No matter their right to rule, if the people who were in place to execute their wills rebelled, it didn’t matter who wore the crown. Mary Queen of Scots emphasizes this issue in each of the Queen’s courts. Elizabeth may not hold absolute power, but she instills loyalty and fear in her followers and advisors as much as she does compassion. Mary never truly grasped that, at least in this adaptation.

The supporting cast in Mary Queen of Scots came under fire because the people behind the film decided to enjoy themselves and cast people in certain roles despite all of the central players being white. Gemma Chan plays Bess of Hardwick, Elizabeth’s closest friend, and confidant, and on the other side, Izuka Hoyle plays Mary Seton (one of the “Four Marys”), despite both women being white in real life. Both of them are phenomenal as friends and allies to their respective Queens. In addition, Lord Randolph is played by Adrian Lester, who acts as Elizabeth’s Ambassador to Scotland, and David Rizzio is played by a Puerto Rican actor, bringing charm and elegance to his portrayal. While obviously, every character they are portraying was white in reality, their performances are exceptional and bring heart and depth to the film.

Alongside Izuka Boyle, Eileen O’Higgins, Maria-Victoria Dragus, and Liah O’Prey portray Mary Beaton, Mary Fleming, and Mary Livingston, respectively, as Mary Stuart’s ladies in waiting. Brendan Coyle (of Downton Abbey) plays the Earl of Lennox, Henry Darnley’s father, seeking to place his husband beside Mary – if only to supplant her at the earliest convenience. Much like the men around Mary, Elizabeth can see a path to “controlling” Mary and sends her own lover, Robert Dudley (played by Joe Alwyn in one of two period pieces that he was in this year, the other being The Favourite), to try and draw Mary in, despite the pain and suffering it causes for Elizabeth to be parted with him.

Guy Pearce plays William Cecil, Elizabeth’s staunchest advisor, acting as a sounding board for her, who never wavers in his support or loyalty. This is in stark contrast to the men who surround Mary. Whether it be one of her husbands, Lord Darnley and Lord Bothwell (Martin Compston), who are more concerned about being King than being a support system to the Queen Regnant, or her brother Lord Moray and his band of rogues. If a man can undermine Mary with even the slightest chance of taking control of the throne, they seek it. Yet, for all her bad luck, Mary manages to come out on top each time – because she is a strong tactician and a charismatic leader. It’s only her misfortune that she is up against a misogynistic, religious zealot.

Mary Queen of Scots did not seek to add anything new to the canon about Mary’s life, and it didn’t need to. The most famous beats made it into the film, up to the point of her execution, because her life is that well known. Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie are exquisite in their respective roles, bringing to life two of history’s most complicated Queens during one of England and Scotland’s most turbulent periods. When it comes down to it, the changes that are made are used to tell a compelling narrative, whether or not they’re historically accurate. Unfortunately, accuracy is not always the most sought-after reason to create a film or television show when it comes to historical pieces. Sometimes this can come down to logistical reasons, such as the budget or a location. Other times, it’s because, narratively speaking, the change works better – it can make for something dramatic, even if the reality was quite dramatic enough. At the end of the day, Mary Queen of Scots is a fun and interesting movie, and that’s all that it has to be.

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