The melodramatic, bodice-ripping elements of Mary’s brief tenure on the Scottish throne and her beheading at the hands of her English cousin Queen Elizabeth have imbued her reputation with inordinate historical importance. The mythical embellishments surrounding such bloody butchers as Robert the Bruce and hapless losers as Bonnie Prince Charlie provide similar examples of the seductive allure to the febrile Scottish imagination of such benighted and self-inflated personalities. One example of this confusion is the nursery rhyme Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary, which has acquired a number of historical explanations. One interpretation suggests that 'how does your garden grow' refers to the reign of Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-1587), and 'silver bells' to Catholic cathedral bells, while 'cockle shells' could be either an invocation of Santiago de Compostela or an insinuation that her husband was unfaithful, and 'pretty maids all in a row' a description of her ladies-in-waiting. However, it has also been identified with England's Queen Mary I (1516-1558), with 'how does your garden grow?' said to refer either to her lack of heirs, the common idea that England had become a Catholic vassal of Spain and the Habsburg Empire, or a punning reference to her chief minister, Stephen Gardiner. In this reading, 'quite contrary' refers to her unsuccessful attempt to reverse the ecclesiastical revolution instituted by her father Henry VIII and brother Edward VI, and 'pretty maids all in a row' either to her various miscarriages or the execution of Lady Jane Grey, with 'rows and rows' being an allusion to the execution of Protestant heretics. However, there is no conclusive proof that the rhyme was known before the 18th century as its first appearance in the vernacular was two hundred years after the reign of both queens. So here are a few historical facts to put the record straight ...
Raised in France while Scotland was ruled by regents during her minority, Mary was the only surviving legitimate offspring of James V. When she returned home in 1561 following the death of her French husband Francis II, she made the mistake of marrying her first cousin Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, who was despised by everyone, including Mary. After a brief fling with Mary's musically-inclined and bisexual Italian secretary, David Rizzio, Darnley signed on to his brutal murder, only to be done in himself eight months after his son's birth. Recovering from a bout of either smallpox or syphilis, he was sent by Mary to recuperate at the Old Provost's lodging at Kirk o'Field, a short walk from Holyrood Castle, with the intention of reincorporating him into court life later on. In February 1567, two explosions rocked the foundations of the lodge, later attributed to barrels of gunpowder placed in the small room under Darnley's sleeping quarters. Darnley's body and that of his 'valet' William Taylor were found outside, surrounded by a cloak, a dagger, a chair, and a coat. Darnley was wearing only his nightshirt. Upon further examination, the bodies had no signs of injuries that could be attributed to the explosion and it was determined that both men had been strangled afterwards.
Mary almost immediately married the chief suspect, the Earl of Bothwell, who had long harboured designs on the throne, and whose close relationship with the queen gave rise to rumours they were sexually intimate. Mary was known to have been looking at options for removing Darnley and this was considered sufficient motive for Bothwell to have Darnley murdered, seemingly with royal approval. Not long afterwards, both Mary and Bothwell were charged with Henry's murder and given separate trials in England in absentia. Bothwell was found not guilty, while Mary's trial took longer and ended with no definitive finding, but with an indictment for murder hanging over her, Mary was forced to abdicate. She was first besieged, then imprisoned at Lochleven Castle in Kinross before fleeing south of the border in May 1568 to seek the protection of Elizabeth, who was under immense pressure to name an heir. Mary considered herself to be a legitimate candidate with a blood claim on the English throne and Elizabeth briefly considered the possibility, but plotters and potential usurpers proliferated, setting off a chain of events that threatened to destroy both women. After almost twenty years as a reluctant guest at Her Majesty's pleasure in some of England's most gilded estates, letters written by Mary were 'discovered' suggesting she was involved in the Babington plot. Elizabeth displayed the same ruthlessness with which she later defeated the Spanish Armada. Mary was convicted of treason and eventually beheaded at Fotheringay Castle in Northamptonshire in 1587. She was largely reviled in post-Reformation Scotland, as much for her Catholicism as her promiscuity, at a time when princesses were generally considered nothing more than disposable chess pieces to be dispatched across Europe to seal treaties, unite kingdoms, and create empires.
More than four hundred years after her execution, Mary's romantic myth has captivated the imagination of film-makers in both Europe and Hollywood since the invention of cinema. In 1895, the short film The Execution of Mary Stuart depicted her decapitation so realistically that audiences believed the actor playing Mary had actually been beheaded. Since then, Mary has been embodied by such diverse actors as Fay Compton, Vanessa Redgrave, Katharine Hepburn, and Samantha Morton. At one point in 2006, Scarlett Johansson was attached to play the lead in this latest version, but she soon dropped out, after which the project was consigned to development hell for over a decade. In 2012, it was announced that it would be Saoirse Ronan's turn to play the ill-fated queen who combined a talent for statecraft with implacable expediency to control and manipulate her court of perfidious noblemen. [Film trivia: This is the second time that Ronan and Redgrave have been cast as the same characters on screen; Redgrave played Mary Stuart in the 1971 version of Mary Queen of Scots, as well as the older Briony Tallis in Atonement, while Ronan played Briony as a young girl]. Five years later, Margot Robbie entered negotiations to play Elizabeth, the second Australian actress following Cate Blanchett to portray the English monarch. Ronan and Robbie rehearsed separately and their scenes were filmed separately, Robbie's being completed on the same day that Ronan began hers. The first time that both actresses actually confronted each other in character was during the pivotal scene in which the two queens supposedly met for the first and only time in real life.
Josie Rourke’s slickly conventional movie relies on a soapy theatricality that is entirely absent from Yorgos Lanthimos’ much more scabrous and acerbic The Favourite. While the two films could not be more different in tone, they both reveal how much political and sexual tension in the royal court was deliberately generated by those vying to retain varying degrees of power and influence. The endless machinations may be mostly familiar, but Rourke and screenwriter Beau Willimon have crafted a sleek alternative to previous versions. As the Donmar Theatre’s artistic director, Rourke has plenty of experience with stage productions under her belt and paces her story like a political thriller, artfully conjuring up some impressive visual imagery. Although her overall ability to coax excellent performances from her cast, organise some difficult blocking, and arrange a compelling mise en scène is entirely competent, her comfort level with the medium of film is not yet complete. While managing to turn Darnley’s brutal murder into a horrifying death scene worthy of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, she struggles to choreograph an extraneous battle scene successfully.
Ronan puts in a confidently committed star turn, her characterisation of Mary coming across in stages as vulnerable, terrifying, sexy, and effortlessly dominant, especially when bossing about the many men who try to outmaneuver her. She dominates her big scene with Robbie's Elizabeth, whose heavily pancaked features had been disfigured by smallpox, leaving her envious and suspicious of anyone she feared was younger and more attractive. Ronan also manages to convey effortlessly how fresh-faced and callow Mary was, suggesting a canny sense of adolescent playfulness in the scenes with her ladies-in-waiting, who function as a kind of mute Greek chorus throughout the film. There are some solid supporting performances from seasoned actors of the caliber of Simon Russell Beale, Guy Pearce, Joe Alwyn (who also appeared in The Favourite), and especially David Tennant, almost unrecognisable beneath a flowing black rug and beard playing the Protestant firebrand reformer John Knox. Rourke is similarly abetted by a top-flight technical crew, including Oscar-winning costume designer Alexandra Byrne, hair and make-up designer Jenny Shircore, and editor Chris Dickens, as well as Emmy-winning production designer James Merifield, and BAFTA-winning cinematographer John Mathieson. There is a juicy abundance of leather doublets, gauzy embroidery, and costume jewelry, and enough eye-liner and hair gel to grease a main axle.
Willimon's narrative closely follows John Guy's biography Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart and centers around his controversial theory that Elizabeth and Mary may have met in person to discuss the fate of their respective kingdoms. Guy claimed that "an auction house possessed documents that indicated the two complicit, yet warring cousins, had a meeting that was in the cards." Knowing a good bit of dramatic malarkey when she smells it, Rourke swallows up this specious historical speculation, while also claiming inspiration from Friedrich Schiller's drama Maria Stuart, in which Mary and Elizabeth also faced off on stage - "The whole conception of the film for me was around that meeting … We really wanted to have our version of that famous scene, with these two women looking at each other and being confronted with their choices - their personal choices, their political choices. It's a moment that's deeply personal." Who cares if it never actually happened?
In an era dominated by rampant misogyny and apparently unyielding patriarchy, it is a bit too easy to re-imagine Mary as a feminist icon, accompanied by Rourke's explicit depictions of gay, interracial, and oral sex thrown in for good measure. Willimon does well to condense a good deal of information without including too much obvious exposition, but critics have labelled other aspects of the film problematic, from Ronan's and Robbie’s nomadic accents to their spurious one-on-one confrontation. There are certainly plenty of largely forgivable dramatic embellishments, but the primary facts emerge relatively untainted and the raw events remain violent and dramatic enough to propel the plot along at a steady trot. Although sticklers for historical accuracy may disapprove of the finer details, Rourke has produced a well-constructed period piece that manages to navigate successfully between the risks of becoming either too stuffy, excessively camp, or overtly sentimental. The disproportionate attention paid by the film industry to a figure of minor historical significance once again confirms that any story involving sex, murder, and political intrigue will always trump historical accuracy at the box office.