The CW’s Mary Queen of Scots soap opera ‘Reign’ took an axe to historical accuracy. But beneath the fashion and fantasy, the vital beats were there; Mary wed the Dauphin of France, and returned to rule Scotland as a teenage widow.
Now, we have a wannabe serious, grown-up movie, inspired by John Guy’s sympathetic biography, originally published as My Heart is My Own.
We pick up with Mary (Saorise Ronan) washing up on the shores of her native land. She takes one look and retches. Her half-brother James is a bastard (like Jon Snow), and David Tennant is firebrand Protestant cleric John Knox.
Then there’s her cousin, Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie).
Mary had become Queen of Scots as a baby, but through her grandmother (Henry VIII’s sister) she also had a claim to Elizabeth’s throne.
Having grown up safely in the French court, critics saw Mary as a pampered princess – yet Guy describes a charismatic and multifaceted diplomat.
The movie shows this by having Elizabeth’s courtiers say, “She’s formidable, Madam!”
At nearly 6ft tall, Mary liked to dress as a man to punk ambassadors. Just don’t expect to see this in the film – she might have been a fun gal by 16th century standards, but in steely Saorise Ronan, Mary is a straightforward, strong heroine.
She marries a vile brat named Darnley, who is murdered by Bothwell (established early as Mary’s sworn defender but absent for most of the movie), who then coerces Mary into marrying him.
The film dashes through this final sequence of events leading to Mary’s downfall, until Mary flees to Elizabeth and a fictional, arty meet-up in a laundry room.
Despite losing her own country, Mary won’t shut up about what a superior Queen she’d be. Facing her young, beautiful ‘rival’, Robbie looks shook. The greatest enemy to her insecure, frail Elizabeth is ageing before modern medicine and Instagram filters.
In Guy’s (well-researched) revisionist account, Mary was Britain’s unluckiest ruler, prey to larger neighbours and the combined forces of Elizabeth’s Catholic-hating advisors, the Protestant Reformation and the age-old factionalism of the Scottish nobility. She was tragically trusting of family, and – still only in her twenties – had disastrous taste in men.
In Josie Rourke’s film, this is largely simplified to Mary being the victim of gender bias. She’d have been best friends with her cousin-over-the-border if it weren’t for the patriarchy. The fact that one of them chopped the other one’s head off should serve to remind us, the #metoo generation, that men suck.
Fine, it’s only a film. But if you want historical fan fiction about the perils of female leadership in a male world, featuring ‘woke’ royals, Reign is on Netflix.