History in the Making

Mary, Queen of Scots: An Inconvenient Queen?

Mary, Queen of Scots is my favourite historical figure. A monarch from my favourite house (Stuart), although her life was marred by tragedy she always strove to do the best by her people. Periodically she becomes popular in the media again, and we have the recent release of Mary, Queen of Scots with Saoirse Ronan bringing her to the fore-front again. Something that I cannot understand though, is why history must always be changed when it comes to Mary Stuart. Is Mary, Queen of Scots an inconvenient queen whose story needs to continually be changed?

Mary, Queen of Scots: An Inconvenient Queen

After being told by the prominent theatre chain here in Winnipeg that Mary, Queen of Scots wouldn’t be shown, I found out on Saturday that it is being shown here. I didn’t want to chance missing it before it left theatres, so I bought a ticket for yesterday’s first show and settled in. I knew going into the movie that there were going to be changes, but I still had to see it for myself. (SPOILERS AHEAD: this is your warning.)

Mary, Queen of Scots: The Life and Times of Mary Stuart by John Guy

It is based on one of my favourite books of all time, Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart by historian John Guy. It is surely an investment book, as it will take quite a while to read through it and take it all in, but it is a worthy investment! He does a wonderful job at presenting a balanced image of Mary, and not succumbing to the same temptation as other historians, dismissing her as a foolish and emotional woman.

Mary, Queen of Scots (The Movie) 

Stylistically, the film is wonderful to watch. Those hairstyles, those gowns, those glens and castles, they are all gorgeous! Saoirse Ronan is a talented actress, and I enjoy watching her no matter what she is doing. David Tennant does a wonderful job as fiery preacher John Knox, as well. The movie is based on Guy’s biography, which for me set it apart from most other Mary, Queen of Scots pieces. Most either veer so far from historical reality that Mary isn’t anything other than a loose inspiration or just go straight for false material. Finally, we were to get an accurate Mary, Queen of Scots movie! Or were we… (Once again, SPOILERS.)

Mary, Queen of Scots movie poster with Mary, Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I
Via Vulture

Inconvenient Facts

They made a few glaring changes that I really don’t think were necessary. The first big change was a sexual relationship between Lord Darnley (Mary’s second husband) and David Rizzio (Mary’s private secretary). Guy has said in the media that they were found in bed together, but I find it difficult to believe. Yes, Rizzio was from Northern Italy and France where the courts were full of sexual exploits, but Darnley spent much of his life in the English court. And if it did happen, I don’t know that it carried the weight that the film implies and doesn’t move the plot along. (If you know of primary sources where this is actually discussed, please let me know!) It also isn’t the case that Mary needs to be made more exciting….

Mary’s life was incredibly dramatic to start with: crowned before she was a year old, she moved to France when she was 5 to be raised in the French court and marry the Dauphin. Francis, her husband died, and as he was king of France, she was no longer Queen. She went back to Scotland, fell into a next of infighting amongst the Scottish lords. She married Lord Darnley, watched him and several other men literally hack her secretary to death, gave birth to the future James VI/I, and was forced to marry the Earl of Bothwell after Lord Darnley was murdered. Captured by the English, she spent decades in captivity before being beheaded….

Mary Queen of Scots Portrait

Does that sound like a boring life? Does that sound like a person who needs to be more interesting than they already are? Did we need to add this highly sexualised and very made up relationship? I say, no, we didn’t. There tends to be a lot of hyper-sexualisation with period pieces, and I don’t know why. Well, I know why- producers want to bring in huge crowds instead of focusing on accuracy for the viewers who are going to be dedicated no matter what. In any case, it felt like it cheapened the movie.

Mary, Queen of Scots bust at Edinburgh Castle

The other big change that they brought in was a meeting between Mary, Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I. I’m really not sure as to why they would have made that change, as Mary and Elizabeth not meeting is the crux of their story together. It was very artfully shot, so I suppose it allowed the director to showcase her skills, but it didn’t help the plot progress. According to a Vanity Fair article, “Guy explained that the climactic meeting was manufactured for the film as ‘a theatrical exaggeration’ because the filmmakers believed ‘that a movie could only work if the two principal protagonists actually met and looked each other in the eye’.” I really wish that filmmakers and producers had more faith in their audiences than they do. I thought that they did beautifully in the first 80% of the movie where they balanced Mary and Elizabeth with no meeting, and it felt like an assumption that they audience couldn’t follow the story.

Mary Queen of Scots Full Portrait

Should You See Mary, Queen of Scots?

Overall, yes, I think that you absolutely should see Mary, Queen of Scots! It is a beautifully shot movie, the acting is fantastic, and although they have taken some rather large liberties with history, it is still a good way to bring Mary’s story to the forefront. I would however implore you to read the book before the movie in this case! Guy is a talented historian, and Mary’s life was nothing short of fascinating. I think that Mary’s life carries more weight now in this Me, Too time that we live in, and she is a strong example of a woman forging her own path.

Do you plan on seeing Mary, Queen of Scots? And if you have seen it, what are your thoughts? 

The Historian
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6 thoughts on “Mary, Queen of Scots: An Inconvenient Queen?”

    • This is isn’t really artsy (thankfully), but I still don’t think it will be shown a lot of places- it is such a specific subject matter. And Tennant was fantastic in it!!!! (Even though I hate John Knox 😐 )

  • I fully plan on seeing it eventually. But I think I might wait for it to come out on DVD instead. I love both the actresses they chose for the movie, but sometimes it’s better to have reactions to movies like this at home. So that I can be infuriated and pause things while I complain about it. LOL

    • Margot Robbie didn’t blow me away, but I think that Saoirse Ronan was absolutely amazing. I’m not a fan of waiting for it to come out for home viewing, only because my opinions keep growing and growing based only on other people’s reviews!

  • I know nothing about Mary, Queen of Scots, but I am very interested in seeing this movie because I really enjoy period pieces (it isn’t playing anywhere near me, so I’m going to have to wait unfortunately). And I think you are absolutely right in thinking that producers and directors of movies like this need to give their audiences more credit. Furthermore, in the case that the people making the decisions for the direction of the movie are drawing from a book, they should do more justice to the author and the historical figures by portraying the details as accurately as possible. I really don’t buy that the movie would not be as captivating if the two Queens [accurately] did not meet – the tension and entertainment would be heightened, I think.

    I’m glad you thought the movie looked spectacular; that definitely increases my enjoyment of films like this. And I will take your suggestion and read the book – or at least make a good dent in it – before watching the film.

    • That is exactly it- there was so much tension and “what will happen???” because they didn’t meet. Some of the magic was certainly lost because of it, and it was wholly unnecessary. I am hoping that The Favourite will be playing here as well, but I have a sneaking suspicion that it won’t. (We rarely get smaller period pieces, and if we do, it is one or two specific theatres for a week or two, tops.)

      I would really recommend reading the half that the movie covers, from her return to Scotland and on! Her life in France was fascinating as well, but it isn’t really crucial to understanding the movie 🙂 I wonder how the author feels about it all!

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