Mary, Retconned Queen of Scots

The Tudor period of history often attracts filmmakers and other artists, for obvious reasons.  The glamour of the court, especially of Elizabeth I, and especially its racier aspects–sexual intrigues, political plotting–are eternal fodder for them.  All historical dramatizations must take some artistic license with the past, but since the late 90s, there has been a marked emphasis on the putative sexual deviance of the early modern era.  In the 1998 film Elizabeth, the Duke of Anjou, future Henry III of France, is portrayed as a cross-dressing homosexual (he never courted Elizabeth, and never went to England); Philippa Gregory’s novel The Other Boleyn Girl portrays Ann Boleyn’s brother George as a homosexual, while the American film based upon it takes Henry VIII’s trumped charges of incest against him as fact.  And in the series The Tudors, the composer Thomas Tallis is portrayed as a homosexual, despite there being no evidence of this.  Presumably artists and filmmakers do this to spice up the stories they wish to tell, but it also likely refits historical figures to make them palatable to modern audiences.

The most recently retconned Tudor personage is the subject of the recently released film, Mary, Queen of Scots.  Perhaps no queen in the British history has been more romanticized than Mary Stuart, whom Elizabeth I executed in 1587 for treason.  Scholars have tended to view Mary Stuart in a more positive light than previously, and this is reflected in the recently released film, which stars Margot Robbie and Saoirse Ronan.  It is based on the book My Heart is my Own: The Life of Mary, Queen of Scots, by John Guy, the eminent Tudor historian, and boasts an impressive cast.  Robbie and Ronan give stellar performances that, as far they could, carry the film, but the performances were good all around; Guy Pearce’s turn as William Cecil was understated but effective, and David Tennant makes a lively appearance as John Knox. Visually speaking, the film is luscious and pleasing, though I found the music a bit too melodramatic for my tastes.

Josie Rourke’s film begins and ends with Mary’s execution in 1587 but focuses mostly her rule of Scotland between 1561 and 1567 until she was forced to abdicate, and flee to England.   The pacing is slow, until Elizabeth, having failed to marry her to a pliant English noble, tries to foment civil war in Scotland.  It picks up from there, but I thought it could have cut much of the first thirty minutes–the build up was too slow.   The movie climaxes with a fictional confrontation between Mary and Elizabeth, and ends with a stylized version of her execution in which Mary addresses the audience, informing them that despite being beheaded, she won–by getting her son on the throne of England.

The film makes pains to display all the forces arrayed against Mary-her Protestant Scottish nobles, who are suspicious of her; the fiery Knox, who encourages rebellion against her; the diplomatic scheming of Cecil, which threatens to destroy her. But in doing so it leaves Mary without a single antagonist to struggle with, just a series of encounters with treacherous men.  The historical figure who actually was her main antagonist is made too obviously sympathetic to Mary to serve that purpose.  Elizabeth I no doubt had some sympathy for Mary as a woman, but her main reason why, for example, she was hesitant to execute Mary when it became clear she was scheming against her in the 1570s, was that Mary was an anointed sovereign, and Elizabeth very much saw herself as ruling by divine right.  She had no wish to undermine her own divinity by attacking Mary’s if it could be avoided.  She frequently expressed as much to her councilors, but none of this makes it into the movie.

Thematically, the film wants to have it both ways: Mary is simultaneously the victim of men’s treachery and the heroic independent woman triumphant, a role usually reserved for Elizabeth.  One reason for this is the film follows Guy’s book so meticulously on this point.  Guy’s biography made Mary seem more capable by making Elizabeth seem insecure and out of her depth, and the film follows suit.  The film skips over Mary’s intrigues against Elizabeth from the 1560s onward, and Guy’s book gives that period short shrift; but there may be thematic reasons for this too.  Mary intriguing against Elizabeth would undercut one of the main themes of the film-the “sisterhood” of fellow monarchs doing battle with a world of treacherous men.  Not coincidentally, the film also follows Guy in making David Riccio and Darnley lovers, a novel historical interpretation itself, but goes further.  Having caught him in flagrante dilecto with Darnley, Mary generously forgives Riccio, telling him, “be whomever you with with us.  You have not betrayed your nature.”  Indeed, this version of royalty sounds more like Meghan Markle than Mary Stuart.

Finally, there is the film’s portrayal of religion.  Unlike say The Tudors, which despite its flaws made great pains to explain to its audience what was at stake in the Protestant-Catholic conflicts of the Tudor era, Mary Queen of Scots makes no such effort.  Though Tennant’s Knox is visually compelling, save for one scene, he does little more than preach from his pulpit. The film never communicates how powerful Calvinism was in Scotland, nor why it moved the people to overthrow their queen.  As for Mary, there is a consensus among scholars that her Catholicism was not as important to her as many in the past have believed, but the film takes this too far.  The film’s Mary is not only a religiously tolerant monarch, (which was historically, mainly because in some ways she had to be, given her political position) but also a remarkably tolerant, almost modern sounding believer. In one scene, she tells her troops on the way to a battle that it doesn’t matter if one is Catholic or Protestant because all go to the same heaven.  Mary may not have been as devout as John Knox, but I doubt she was as indifferent to religious belief as the makers of the film appear to be.

In short, Mary, Queen of Scots is a somewhat enjoyable, if flawed take on a flawed but interesting figure.

~ by Alypius on May 17, 2019.

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