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Mary, Queen of Scots (2018): A Decent Tudor Biopic

Yesterday they removed Mary, Queen of Scots (2018) from BBC iPlayer, so I felt I had to watch it again before it was too late. This wasn't my first time seeing this film, however. The first time round I ended up hating it, having expected of it so much. This time, as I got off my high horse, it actually wasn't too bad. Also, as I'm writing this, it's still the 8th February, which is the death day for the poor Mary, Queen of Scots.

The story takes place when Mary Stuart comes back to Scotland to claim her crown, and ends with her death. In fact, the execution is the first scene in the film. Everything else becomes a flashback. This wee loop is probably a reference to Mary's motto - "In my end is my beginning".

The film is made by the same producers who gave us Elizabeth (1998), Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007) and The Tudors (2007-2011), and this film holds its own very well against its cinematic predecessors. The cast, the locations, the costumes are all well executed, no pun intended. I was thrilled to find out that some scenes had also been shot at Blackness Castle, which is one of my favourite Scottish castles. Apparently, it was meant to represent the outside of Holyrood House.

The actors are well cast, however, I would like to share my thoughts on the two leads. An Irishwoman and an Australian playing a French Scot and an Englishwoman...these were very curious choices. They both inhabit their roles well, though Ronan (Mary) does is better. If it were up to me, I'd actually swapped them. Saoirse Ronan looks a lot more like Elizabeth than Margot Robbie does, and the latter would have been a great MQS, being stunningly gorgeous.

Blackness Castle
Blackness Castle

One thing bothered me in the film, historical accuracy -wise, and no, it's not Saoirse's accent, though she probably would have been speaking with the French one. The thing I can't reconciled with, is the line MQS says to Elizabeth, that because she (MQS) is a Stuart, she has a higher claim to the English throne. This makes no sense, as it's the Tudors who won the throne on the battleground in 1485, not the Stuarts. She could have recalled that she herself was a Tudor too, through her grandmother (elder sister of Henry VIII, Elizabeth's father), which would have made historical sense. Alas, her utterance is void of meaning. Mary also said that she's Elizabeth's Queen...I don't see that.

Blackness Castle
Blackness Castle

In reality, the only way Mary was more acceptable than Elizabeth (apart from religious grounds depending on the audience) is due to her being a legitimate child of her regal parents, as opposed to Elizabeth's own dubious origins. In contrast, the StarzPlay show Becoming Elizabeth (2022) handled this issue marvellously.

A few things this film handled well and it deserves applause for bringing certain topics into the conversation and pushing the envelope on others:

  1. BIPOC actors playing historically white characters. I believe it was the first (or one of the very first) wide release films to make this active choice and open doors for more actors to play characters from the past, no matter their ethnic origin. Bridgerton casting owed a lot to this film, in this way.

  2. Showing a woman getting her period. It is about time the period conversation is normalised and not treated as taboo. The director had to fight to keep this scene in the film.

  3. A woman's sexual pleasure. This issue is finally getting normalised in the films and TV shows in the past few years.

Historical events that usually bypass the scripts about these characters:

  1. Elizabeth I getting smallpox and almost dying. I believe it was shown in one TV show before, but it's rare. This film showed it front and centre, as well as the 'ugly' side of it - Elizabeth using the 16th century version of foundation to cover up the scars when the disease is gone. She would cover her face thus for the rest of her life. Because of course, this was home made and no FDA-approved per se, her 'foundation' was also slowly poisoning her. #ourstrenghisinourscars

  2. Bothwell forcing himself on Mary, rather than being her romantic partner. Usually, in films and TV shows about MQS, Bothwell is her one true love, and the audience pines for them to be together. It is now widely believed that Bothwell raped Mary, in order to marry her.

  3. The film, as some screen adaptations of their lives have done before, shows the meeting between MQS and Elizabeth I that never took place. It is so deeply embedded in the mythology of these two persons and becomes difficult to ignore. One of its origins is the 19th century play by Friedrich Schiller, entitled Mary Stuart. The play revolved around this fictional meeting, and the actresses playing the leads often swap roles, or even toss a coin to decide who's Mary and who's Elizabeth for that particular performance. In London'd West End, it has last been staged in 2018.

There are a few edutainment pieces I'd love to recommend for anyone interested in these two formidable women and their relationship:


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