History teacher film review of Mary Queen of Scots

There have been a lot of films and TV dramas documenting the lives of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots and Queen Elizabeth I with some being far more credible or interesting than others. It’s easy to understand why the lives of Mary & Elizabeth are often brought to the screen due to the intense drama, suspense, relationships and conflict of the period … everything a good script requires! What is likely to attract audiences to this film are the popular actresses Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie, playing Mary Stuart and Queen Elizabeth in addition to those fascinated by two of the most well-known female monarchs in British history.

For anyone unfamiliar with the life of Mary Stuart & Elizabeth Tudor, I will provide a brief overview. Mary was born in 1542 the daughter of King James V of Scotland and the French Mary of Guise. Mary became Queen of Scotland at the age of six days old as a result of the death of her father. As was the custom at the time Mary obviously did not rule as a child but instead, others ruled on her behalf. Mary was the great-granddaughter of Henry Tudor, her grandmother was Margaret Tudor the daughter of Henry VII. Margaret was the sister of the infamous Henry VIII (known for his six wives!). Elizabeth I was the daughter of Henry VIII (her father ordered the execution of her mother Anne Boleyn but that’s a completely different story and film altogether!).

Henry VIII did try to arrange a marriage alliance between his son Edward (who ruled England as a young child from the years 1547 – 1553 before his premature death) and Mary which became known as the ‘rough wooing’. Marriage amongst relations was not unusual to strengthen claims and political alliances but instead, Mary moved to France at five years old and later wed Francis, Dauphin of France who  shortly after became King of France.

Therefore Mary was Queen of Scotland, married to the King of France and had a claim to the English throne. Very powerful indeed. When Mary was only 18 years old her husband Francis died and she became a widow. It is also worth knowing that Mary was a Catholic and her cousin Elizabeth, who became Queen of England in 1558 was a Protestant. This is a period fraught with religious division and conflict post English Reformation. This is essentially where the film begins with Mary returning to Scotland (although technically it begins with Mary awaiting her execution in 1587 then flashes back to 1561 ).

Viewing the trailer prior to the release of the film I was shocked to see a glimpse of a scene between Ronan and Robbie as it is well known that the characters they play, Mary and Elizabeth never actually met. There were plans to meet but the plans never materialised. The pair had a very strong connection both as Queens and second cousins. There has never been any record or evidence of this meeting. This scene was fictionalised purely for entertainment value as audiences may have been very disappointed not to see an interaction between the two leading ladies!

I was slightly reluctant to watch the film based on that one obvious inaccuracy alone, this surprised my friends as they assumed a history teacher lives for these types of Hollywood films (we don’t), but I quickly changed my mind when I read that the film was based on the work of John Guy. John Guy is a world-leading historian specialising in the life of Mary Stuart and Fellow of Clare College, University of Cambridge. As an A-Level student, I read his well-known book My Heart Is My Own: The Life of Mary Queen of Scots. I have since read this book again as a history teacher and I also recommend it to my students too. Associating John Guy with this film does add a very high level of credibility but I would be very interested to find out what John Guy made of the film (he certainly did not write about a meeting or physical encounter between Mary and Elizabeth although there was communication exchanged between them).

The film has received mixed reviews online. The film was surprisingly only nominated for two Oscars, for Best make-up and hairstyling and Best costume design. I do accept that historical films are designed to entertain not educate but I do feel there should be a significant degree of responsibility and duty to represent historical events accurately. Audiences want to be entertained but the lives of Mary and Elizabeth have so many dramatic twists and turn of events I don’t think fiction or enhancement is required! Audiences without background knowledge of this period will learn and gain insight from watching the film but they might not be able to easily distinguish between the historical facts and the historical inaccuracies.

I do not claim to be a leading expert on this topic. I did study the reign of Elizabeth I during my A Levels, I did not study this period at University whilst completing my BA History degree but I did learn about Catherine de Medici the (first) mother in law of Mary Stuart but she does not appear in this film as the plot focuses on life for Mary after France. Currently, I teach Edexcel A Level History with a depth and breadth paper that focuses on Tudor rebellions and disorder. The rebellion of the Northern Earls, 1569 linking Mary Stuart and Elizabeth does feature as one example of rebellion as part of our study but again this is not featured in the film. I have read other excellent books with specific reference to the work of Antonia Fraser about the life of Mary Queen of Scots. I have watched several documentaries that document the lives of Mary and Elizabeth from Simon Schama to David Starkey. I can also recommend two podcasts that explore the life and legacy of Mary Stuart:

BBC Radio 4 In Our Time: Mary, Queen of Scots. Hosted by Melvyn Bragg and features guests David Forsyth Principal Curator, Scottish Medieval-Early Modern Collections at National Museums Scotland, Anna Groundwater Teaching Fellow in Historical Skills and Methods at the University of Edinburgh and of course John Guy. You can download and listen to that podcast here. 

I am also an avid listener of the History Hit podcast with Dan Snow. There is a fascinating and informative podcast where Dan Snow interviews Professor Kate Williams and this provides an overview of the turbulent life and rise and fall of Mary Stuart. You can download and listen to that podcast here. I asked Kate Williams if she had seen the film and what she thought of it, she replied that yes she had and she loved it. This really surprised me and I’m keen to find out why she loved it so much.

Below I have reflected on the film sharing my opinions and critique. If you haven’t seen the film yet then perhaps don’t read further as there will be spoilers!

The stunning Scottish landscape is a highlight of this film.

What did I enjoy about the film?

  • I am delighted the film was nominated for various awards in the make-up, hair and costume categories as this film is a treat for filmgoers that enjoy a costume drama! The cinematography was incredible too with stunning and authentic views of the beautiful Scottish landscape.
  • The casting was very good. Mary was well known for being tall, slender and beautiful. She was described as the most beautiful woman in Europe. Saoirse Ronan captures this youthful beauty but also demonstrates her wonderful acting skills too. Guy has described Mary as fun, intelligent, confident and someone who took risks and Ronan embodies all of these qualities too. My issues with the portrayal of Mary isn’t based on the performance of Ronan but instead the script and screenplay. Margot Robbie looks unrecognisable in the film, a complete contrast from her glamorous character in The Wolf of Wall Street! Robbie has undertaken a “make-under” for the role attempting to go from glamorous to grotesque (not my words but how the character Elizabeth has been described when at one point in the film she has a pox-ridden face) and the appearance of Elizabeth in the film is designed to reflect the belief that Mary was much more attractive and charming than Elizabeth and enhance this rivalry of Queens.
  • After the death of Francis Mary later marries Henry, Lord Darnley. I was impressed with this portrayal of Darnley as it was a good representation of what I have read about him in various books. I have read that Darnely was handsome, charismatic and that there was clearly an attraction and chemistry between Darnley and Mary that is shown in the film. Once marrying Darnley his true colours are revealed to Mary, Guy says that Darnley knows how to behave until a ring is on his finger, as he was a drunk known for his adulterous and violent behaviour. The marriage to Darnley would have seemed appealing to Mary for various reasons, mainly due to his position in society and his claim to the throne as he was also a  great-grandchild of Henry VIII, but it was ultimately a huge mistake for Mary. The audience finds him to be charming and dashing at first but later see another side to him and this was the troubling experience Mary had with him.
  • The film has been criticised for the number of historical inaccuracies, some I will explore in this post, but it’s important to note that the majority of the film is based on true events. It was very interesting to see which aspects and events the director Josie Rourke and screenplay writer Beau Willimon chose to focus on and compare that with many key events that were absent from the film. The death of Mary’s private secretary, musician and close confidant David Rizzio has been described just as brutal, violent and gruesome as the film suggests, he was believed to have been stabbed 56 times in front of a distressed pregnant Mary.
  • There are some great performances from the supporting cast including David Tennant as the anti-Mary and Protestant Scottish John Knox.
  • The film illustrates the difficulties both Mary and Elizabeth experienced as female Queens/leaders working alongside a male council. The film shows the power struggle, the religious conflict (albeit not in great depth but it is a recurring theme) and the personal challenges that both Mary and Elizabeth endured as leaders in a time of religious and political turmoil. The film did highlight the issue Queens had with marriage in this period – they were expected to marry but then as a wife expected to obey their husband. The downfall of Mary can be attributed to her disastrous marriages and the downfall of the Tudor dynasty can be attributed to the fact that Elizabeth never married therefore didn’t provide an heir.
  • The accent of Mary is often a topic that is discussed and we cannot know this for sure but we do know Mary spent the majority of her youth in France and was fluent in French. I have read that on her return to Scotland her native Scottish accent was still present. I was pleased to see Mary speaking French to her ladies in waiting and throughout the film and when speaking French doing so with an appropriate accent. This is a small detail but one I did appreciate as I have seen this ignored in other portrayals of Mary where she has a thick Scottish accent and her French upbringing has been disregarded when clearly it did have a huge impact on her mannerisms and character. The issue with the accent is that Mary Stuart is known as Mary Queen of Scots, therefore, it seems logical for an actress to use a Scottish accent despite her French upbringing.

My issues with the film …

  • I have to start with the historical inaccuracies. The biggest falsehood is the meeting of the two monarchs as mentioned. The film suggests the pair did meet but agreed never to speak of it to anyone else (I have since seen conspiracy theories suggesting this could be true, oh dear). This is highly unlikely. For Elizabeth and Mary to have met and this to never be documented even after their deaths is difficult to believe. There is no evidence to suggest they met. There is evidence that they planned to meet but that the attempts failed as shown in the film with a disappointed Mary. As mentioned, audience members not aware of this fact could assume this meeting happened and that is the issue when we blend history with fiction. The film also suggests that Mary did not abdicate her throne as we see her refuse to do so. Mary did abdicate, granted Mary would have abdicated reluctantly due to the threats against her life but the film suggests Mary defiantly refuses abdication. Mary does flee Scotland but it isn’t quite clear about what actually happened. Elizabeth ages rapidly in the film with her appearance changing from her outbreak of the pox with her rough skin complexion that she tries to mask with thick white make-up and her thinning hair under a heavy wig to the obvious physical signs of ageing too. Despite the efforts to illustrate physical flaws Elizabeth (Robbie) has a Hollywood smile with pearl white teeth – not how Elizabeth is remembered and highly unlikely too! This is a stark contrast to Mary who appears as fresh-faced in 1587 (at the age of 44 just before she is executed) as she looked when she arrived in Scotland as a teen widow! Mary does not age at all or change physically at any point in the film (apart from pregnancy). Guy even wrote about how ill health had impacted Mary’s appearance and she put on weight with a fuller face but the film suggests she kept her beauty until her dying day or the film is suggesting that is how Elizabeth envisions Mary, again I wasn’t quite sure. It was known that as Mary aged she wore a wig but that is left out too. There are many more historical inaccuracies I could discuss but some are much more obvious than others. There are lots of interesting articles online that fact-check the film and illustrate inaccuracies and whilst sometimes as a viewer I can overlook these errors (as a film like this is not intended to be a history lesson!) I was unable to overlook such obvious errors.
  • I personally do not believe that this film should be associated with the work of John Guy. Guy begins his wonderful book with a powerful account of the execution of Mary with the full drama, theatre and spectacle described in detail. All of this is missing from the execution scene in the film which is a disappointing anti-climax. I wonder how Guy felt about the fictional scene between the characters? Reading the acknowledgements written by Guy in his book illustrates how many people he worked with during the intense research he carried out and it also shows how much time of his life he dedicated to writing his book. Not only is he an outstanding historian but also a superb writer that transports the reader to this turbulent time with such specific detail and depth, unlike this film that did not prioritise historical accuracy and detail.
  • The gripping book Mary Queen of Scots by Antonia Fraser discusses the anxiety Mary suffered for most of her adult life. Mary experienced a lot of trauma in her life including the death of her parents, being a widow at the age of 18, a miscarriage during her marriage to Bothwell which was believed to be the tragic loss of twins and returning to an unknown Scotland as a Catholic Queen in a largely Protestant country plus much more! Fraser writes about how the anxiety would often affect Mary both mentally and physically. There is no suggestion of this in the film and the character played by Ronan suggests quite the opposite that she was incredibly brave and resilient – which can also be true of someone who experiences anxiety but a more accurate and realistic reflection would be a character that struggles with anxiety but continues in spite of this. The film is not based on the work of Fraser but nevertheless, her mental and physical health problems were dominant in her life but not in this film.
  • When I teach about the life and events linked to Mary Stuart my students have previously tended to view Mary as either villain or victim. I try to avoid this and not categorise her as either because clearly she did experience hardship and heartache but she also made some very foolish mistakes too. I don’t think we need to pigeon hole Mary as evil or good and the work of John Guy, Antonia Fraser and Kate Williams plus others suggest this too. Yes, she was a victim in her life but I don’t think the liberal heroine that she is depicted to be in this film is a correct interpretation.
  • There are so many ommissions in this film. I know a film cannot cover all aspects of the life of Mary Stuart but her life in France is only briefly mentioned, the film focuses on her years in Scotland when she returns but the 19 years she spent imprisoned in England is practically left out! The revolt of the Northern Earls in 1569, a year after her arrival in England, isn’t mentioned at all the same is true of the Ridolfi Plot. There is only a brief reference to Catholic plots but no discussion of the Babington Plot (which was to be the plot that led to her execution). The film suggests Elizabeth is protecting Mary keeping her safe in England from the Scottish rebels. The reality was that Mary was a prisoner, lacking freedom under close surveillance and scrutiny by Elizabeth’s advisors – also I can’t recall Sir Francis Walsingham appearing in the film who played a key role in the downfall of Mary (in addition to William Cecil who is a character in the film). I did expect some discussion of the letters Mary sent in a secret code through beer barrels that were eventually used as evidence against her. This really shocked me and made the execution seem completely unnecessary whereas if the film explored plot after plot with Mary continuously used as a Catholic figurehead this would lead the audience to better understand the reasons that eventually led to her death.
  • The portrayal of Elizabeth is different from that of previous actresses most notably Cate Blanchett and Helen Mirren which of course isn’t a bad thing. I did find this interpretation of Elizabeth however, quite difficult to grasp. In the film Elizabeth is seen to be regularly asking her advisors what to do and whilst she did have a close relationship with William Cecil, as he was very powerful in regards to decision making and she clearly trusted him, I think she is portrayed as weak, indecisive and naive. The film suggests as she ages she becomes a stronger leader but at one point in the film, Elizabeth isn’t interested in politics as she is too busy making paper flowers and considering whether the colours look right. Usually, Elizabeth is the focus of films rather than a supporting character and she is often portrayed as the wiser leader out of the two Queens who led England into a golden age but not in this film, she is overshadowed by Mary as the title suggests. The film would have the audience believe that Mary was the main problem Elizabeth faced during her reign and whilst the issues of Mary and succession did dominate her rule as Queen she also had many other challenges to deal with such as the passing of her Religious Settlement in 1559, the excommunication in 1570, the continued problem and Spanish threat in addition to domestic problems such as vagrancy. This performance and portrayal have made me reflect on my own interpretation of Elizabeth, which is interesting.
  • There are several unanswered questions for the audience. If you are a historian or familiar with this period then you will know the answer but if not then there is likely to be gaps in your knowledge. Mary had a third husband the Earl of Bothwell. What happened to him in the film? Audiences don’t know or find out but perhaps audiences don’t care as he is not a likeable character (Bothwell fled abroad and was imprisoned in Denmark you can read more about him here.) Also, it is not clear what happened to her half-brother James, Earl of Moray as he is a reoccurring character in the film but again perhaps not important enough but I do think loose ends should be tied up. The only attempt to do this is at the end showing how James, the son of Mary inherited the throne of England in addition to ruling Scotland after the death of Elizabeth.
  • I understand the film deals with very serious issues ranging from political and religious tension to violence, sexism and brutality but I do feel the film could have benefitted from a small injection of humour. This may have been done on purpose but this film for me lacked something even in regards to entertainment value. I realise that perhaps I am a harsh critic focusing too much on historical accuracy instead of artistic license but even when focusing on the entertainment value I felt let down too.

Overall, I wouldn’t urge people to go see this film. The acting, costumes and landscapes are stunning with powerful acting so if you enjoy a costume drama it is likely you will enjoy this film. If you have an interest in history you may find the fictional scenes and noticeable ommissions frustrating.

This film has been released at the same as another historical film focusing on the monarchy; The Favourite starring another formidable female line up with Olivia Coleman as Queen Anne. This has proven far more successful in regards to Oscar nominations and recognition in general perhaps because the life of Queen Anne will be new to many audiences as it hasn’t been dramatised as much as the lives of Mary and Elizabeth. I have yet to see The Favourite but I look forward to doing so and it will be very interesting to draw comparisons in regards to casting, costume, story and historical accuracy.

There is so much more I could discuss about this film and the period of history it is focused on but I am aware this is already a very lengthy review! Instead of recommending this film I can highly recommend the book by John Guy that you can order on Amazon here. A thrilling and exciting read, rich with historical content, accuracy and depth.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *