Tudor era facts and friction – and a little fiction by Richard Jones


A look at Mary Queen of Scots (MA)

Don’t you hate it when screen writers and directors override historical facts and concoct scenes from their own vivid imaginations?

Such is the case with Josie Rourke’s otherwise riveting movie set in the 1570s and 80s with the rival monarchs – Elizabeth 1 of England (Margot Robbie) and Mary Queen of Scots (Saiorse Ronan) – battling it out for control of the throne.

The first of the implausible suggestions is that the pair became pen pals regularly dipping their feathered quills into the ink to pen each other notes on how to skirt around male machismo.

They didn’t. But the idea that the cousins and great rivals for the throne met each other in person to discuss how things were going is just untrue.

Rourke and screen writer Beau Willimon have the two queens circling one another in a shepherd’s hut hung with a week’s washing. Maybe the brushing-aside of the sheets is meant to portray the ghostliness and unreal atmosphere of the ‘meeting’ but also, perhaps, Elizabeth’s unwillingness to show her cousin her face scarred by a bout of smallpox which nearly killed the Queen of England.

In real life the pair never ever met.

But let’s go back to the start. Mary arrives in Scotland from France where she’s grown up and spent most of her life. She has to win over the stroppy Scottish nobility, particularly her half-brother the Earl of Moray (James McArdle) who’s been acting as the de facto regent during Mary’s marriage to the French monarch Francis II, now deceased.

The whole situation is so turbulent that Mary and Moray end up on opposing sides during a brief civil war which is more a series of skirmishes than flat-out war. Eventually a fragile peace is restored with Mary betrothed to Lord Henry Darnley (Jack Lowden) who fancies himself as the King of Scotland rather than Mary’s consort.

The other difficulty is that Darnley is homosexual meaning the queen has to force him into bed if she’s to become pregnant with the child she desperately needs to strengthen her fortunes against Elizabeth.

The mood is decidedly gloomy inside Edinburgh’s Holyrood Castle (which we’ve visited, so I can vouch for its lack of warmth) while Elizabeth’s digs at Hampton Court palace are far more comfortable.

Mary’s apartment with her attendant ladies-in-waiting is brightened up somewhat by Italian court jester/musician David Rizzio (Ismael Cruz Cordova) who is out-and-out gay. At one stage Darnley and Rizzio are caught in bed in flagrante delicto, a situation which leads to Rizzio’s eventual stabbing assassination by a procession of Scottish lords including a coerced, unwilling and stressed-out Darnley.

But Darnley doesn’t last much longer. His escape castle refuge is ravaged by cannon fire and when he flees out to the adjacent garden two assassins strangle him to death.

Eventually Elizabeth determines Mary must be imprisoned and kept out of the limelight. The Scottish queen serves 19 years in various castles with just her ladies-in-waiting as companions.

She walks determinedly to the execution chamber with the master axeman awaiting and at the last moment, before placing her head on the block, flings off her outer garment to show us a dazzling scarlet dress.    

In attributing most of the male actors’ names with the characters they played is all down to reviews and the IMDb (internet movie data base) for me. I couldn’t spot most of them. David Tennant is unrecognisable as the ranting, righteous Church of Scotland’s Protestant leader, John Knox. And Guy Pearce? He plays Elizabeth’s wily, scheming adviser (and chief spy) Lord Cecil. Although it’s not shown in the movie, Elizabeth eventually banished Cecil out of London back to his estates once the enormity of what she’d done – at his urging – had pricked her conscience. With the male characters their lush beards made them unrecognisable. Tennant, in particular, with his hair more than shoulder length and his massive beard sprouting down past his chest. The one I could pin a name to, unaided, was Darnley’s irritable father, the Earl of Lennox. He’s played by Downtown Abbey’s Brendan Coyle and Coyle just sports unshaven features and a little goatee.

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