What on earth?! Elizabeth, Mary, and Bess of Hardwick wandering around in a laundry. The Four Marys praying on the bedroom floor that Darnley had managed to hit the jackpot. When he wasn’t carrying on with Rizzio – as if Rizzio, even if he actually had been interested in blokes, would have looked twice at an idiot like Darnley. John Knox’s hair and beard were rather mesmerising: I wonder if he ever washed them. Why did French-raised Mary have a Scottish accent? Why was the Earl of Lennox (played by Mr Bates from Downton Abbey) getting so stuck into everything? What happened to the Battle of Carberry Hill? Shouldn’t the Casket Letters and the umpteen plots have got a mention? Worst of all, how dared they present Elizabeth as such a wimp? I was spitting feathers about that! She was shown as splitting her time between getting upset, having soppy conversations with Robert Dudley (who looked about 14), and taking advice from Mike from Neighbours. Whereas Mary must have spent most of her time having her very elaborate hairdo sorted out. Much as I love an excuse to talk about the 16th century, the best bits of this were the shots of Hardwick Hall and the Scottish countryside!
Why mess about with a story that would grab anyone’s attention exactly as it was? The life of Mary Queen of Scots is something that you just couldn’t make up. It makes even the most OTT of soap operas look mild by comparison. And why make everything that happened in her life – well, everything that happened during the seven years of her forty-four year life that it covered – about her relationship with Elizabeth?
Having started off being negative, I’m always very pleased to see a film, especially one that’s going to grab attention because of its big name cast, about history. We’ve got two big films this year about Stewart/Stuart queens, this and The Favourite. Always good to see history in the headlines, even though this film’s been well and truly overshadowed by The Favourite. And it’s big names, and this time I’m talking historical figures rather than actresses and actors, that get people talking.
There’s sometimes been a lot of debate between historians over whether history is about important individuals and landmark events or whether it’s about long-running trends and movements. It’s probably less relevant now that the age of empire and the age of communism are both over, because that idea that history’s moving onwards and upwards towards something has rather been shown not to work. Obviously there are long-running movements, but even they tend to involve individuals and events. The study of them does, anyway. You wouldn’t talk about the fight for women’s suffrage without mentioning Emmeline Pankhurst, or the Reformation without mentioning Luther, Zwingli, Calvin and Henry VIII, or the Renaissance without mentioning Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raffaello and Donatello (sorry!). We like to talk about people.
And we like rivalries. Rafa and Roger. United and Liverpool. Barcelona and Real Madrid. Oasis and Blur. Gladstone and Disraeli. And there seems to be a particular fascination with the idea of a rivalry between Elizabeth and Mary, Queen of Scots. The 1971 Mary, Queen of Scots film focused on it as well. Maybe it’s because there haven’t been that many queens regnant in history, and having two in one island was unique, with the added spice that they were first cousins once removed and Mary, by both the laws of primogeniture and the terms of Henry VIII’s will, had the best claim to be Elizabeth’s heir. And, in the eyes of those who didn’t recognise the validity of Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn, had a claim to be in Elizabeth’s place. All set against the background of religious strife across Europe, Mary’s ties with France, and the threat to Elizabeth from England’s real rival – Philip II of Spain.
Were their lives so entangled? There was no actual conflict between England and Scotland at this point; nor was there likely to be. This wasn’t the age of Flodden Field or Bannockburn. Scotland was too weak and divided to attack England, and England wasn’t interested in trying to conquer Scotland. Different factions in Scotland were seeking English help, England couldn’t afford for France or Spain to get too involved in Scotland and possibly use it as a back door to attack England, and there was the ongoing worry that someone might try to put Mary on Elizabeth’s throne. And Mary did want to be named as Elizabeth’s heir. So, all right, I suppose it is quite difficult to talk about one without talking about the other – especially if the focus is on Mary, who ended up spending much of her life under house arrest in England.
But do you have to decide that you’re going to talk one up and talk one down? You can’t support two rival football clubs, but, with historical figures … I don’t see why you can’t appreciate both. With Elizabeth, I find it very easy, because there is just so much to admire. With Mary, I’m never entirely sure what I think. That’s partly because we don’t know what happened at the crucial point of Mary’s reign – her marriage to Bothwell. There are such completely different versions of events, and we just don’t have the evidence to tell us which one is true. At one extreme, there’s the idea that the two of them were lovers, and conspired to murder Darnley so that they could marry each other. (Bothwell’s previous wife was also shoved out of the way, but at least she was divorced rather than bumped off! The film never even mentioned her.) At the other extreme, there’s the idea that he kidnapped her, raped her repeatedly until she became pregnant (she later miscarried), and forced her to marry him. The film went somewhere down the middle – she wasn’t involved in the murder, but went off with Bothwell voluntarily, believing that he could protect her, but then he gave her little choice but to marry him. I’ve read so much on this subject, and I’m still not sure what to believe.
This film was definitely trying to talk Mary up, though. It went out of its way to show a positive portrayal of her – despite all the stupid mistakes she made. I could have lived with that, though. It was much better than the idea of her as a romantic tragic-heroine/Catholic martyr who was nothing but the pitiful victim of events and other people’s decisions. But the fact that it was so negative about Elizabeth put me right off. It just didn’t work at all. In fact, in that bizarre fictitious scene in the laundry, the script pretty much admitted that it’d got it wrong! Elizabeth said that she’d always been jealous of Mary. Was she? I don’t know. Maybe. But then she said that she’d realised that she didn’t want to be like Mary after all. Now, that was more like it. But did Elizabeth really spend so much time thinking about Mary? Was Mary really so obsessed with Elizabeth that she kept sending her letters saying that she wanted them to be sisters, as this film suggested. Didn’t each of them – and obviously I’m talking about the period before Mary fled to England and was imprisoned – have enough going on in their own lives to spend quite so much time obsessing about each other on a personal basis as well as a political basis?
So what did the film actually show? It opened with eighteen-year-old Mary’s return from France, following the death of her first husband. Despite having lived in France since the age of five, she spoke with a Scottish accent – as did the Four Marys. And despite a long and apparently difficult voyage, her complicated hairdo was immaculate. It stayed like that all the time, whether she’d been galloping about on horseback, on the road for hours, or anything else. And she seemed a fair bit older than eighteen. All right, you can’t show someone looking the right age all the time, and there are worse inaccuracies than accents and hair that never gets messed up, but it was just annoying.
She then proceeded to Edinburgh, where she met up with her half-brother, the Earl of Moray. It was rather difficult to tell who was who, because names weren’t often given, and all the men had beards … although no-one else’s beard was as spectacularly long and messy as that of John Knox. This is an intriguing part of history, because Mary’s always seen as a Catholic heroine, yet she didn’t try to replace the Protestant lords who’d taken control before her return. Was that because, whilst she’s often seen as being anything but politically astute, she knew not to pick a fight she couldn’t win? Or was it because she didn’t want to put herself offside with Elizabethan England? Probably a bit of both. The film did actually cover this fairly well: it could have skipped over the politics and just concentrated on the more audience-friendly topic of her love life, but, to be fair, it didn’t.
We did get quite a lot about Mary’s relationship with Darnley, though. And this was all messed up. A lot of it was more about Elizabeth than about Mary! What was going on with Elizabeth’s involvement in Mary’s search for a new husband? This is something else I’m never quite sure about. She surely can’t seriously have thought that Mary would marry Robert Dudley, son of an executed traitor, grandson of a tax collector and known by everyone to be her ((Elizabeth’s) own “favourite”. The film suggested that she did, though. I really don’t know. It seems a strange thing to suggest just to try to stir it, but I can’t believe that Elizabeth seriously thought Mary would consider the idea.
If they’d shown Elizabeth thinking it was a good idea because it’d give her influence in Mary’s camp, and even being amused by the idea of trying to humiliate her by suggesting such an unsuitable husband, it might have worked, but, instead, they just showed her being emotionally dependent on Dudley, going on about how much she needed him, and also being very dependent on Cecil (Guy Pearce), which I found incredibly annoying. Elizabeth I, with the heart and stomach of a king, who’d survived so much already and was going to survive so much more. It’s annoying enough when people present Mary as being a weak little woman. It’s unbearable to see a film doing that with Elizabeth.
A lot was made of Elizabeth’s near-fatal case of smallpox. It must have been absolutely horrendous, to put it mildly, and she must have suffered severe emotional scars as well as the physical pox marks. And it panicked everyone, because she hadn’t named an heir. But the film makers seemed determined to seize on it just to show her as being weak and vulnerable, worrying what everyone’d think of her afterwards, rather than in terms of its political consequences. And they never mentioned Mary’s health problems at all. It’s thought that she may have had porphyria, and have passed it on down the line to George III: we can’t be sure of that, but she certainly had bouts of illness during the period covered by this film, and they weren’t shown at all. She was depicted as being very fit and healthy, galloping around on horseback, doing a lot of dancing … not a suggestion of any sort of flaw, for lack of a better way of putting it.
Next up, Darnley and a lot of scenes involving galloping round the Highlands. Elizabeth was shown to be very upset and concerned about the marriage. I suppose she must have had concerns, especially as Darnley was also a descendant of Henry VIII, but I go with the view that she knew Darnley was a complete idiot and was happy for Mary to marry him rather than someone with political acumen. The film, however, determined to show Mary in a positive light, showed Darnley as the perfect suitor … right up until his wedding night, when he got drunk and went off with Rizzio, Mary’s musician and secretary. Ridiculous.
For a kick off, no-one has that much of a personality transplant overnight – you don’t go from being the perfect potential husband to being a violent drunk, just like that. And, whilst Darnley might well have been bisexual, there’s never been any suggestion that Rizzio was interested in men. He was widely rumoured, although falsely, to be Mary’s lover. I think that bit just got put in so that they could include a scene with Mary assuring Rizzio that she had no problem with him being gay, to show that she was tolerant and open-minded – as with another scene in which she assured a Protestant soldier that she wasn’t bothered what religion people were. But Rizzio wasn’t gay, and he certainly wasn’t involved with Darnley. As for that scene in which Mary coaxed Darnley into doing the deed with her, apparently just once, and then got the Four Marys to pray by her bedside whilst she crossed her legs and rolled backwards … who on earth dreamt that up?!
Then all the big drama! Starting with the conspiracy of the Protestant lords against Mary, Darnley dithering over whose side he was on, and the murder of poor old Rizzio in front of his heavily pregnant queen. OK, obviously this did all happen – but why was the Earl of Lennox shown as being behind it all?! And bullying Darnley into striking the final blow, to prove that he was a real man? I suppose they’d got themselves in a mess by making out that Rizzio had been having it off with Darnley, when in fact people were saying that he’d been having an affair with Mary, but it was just all wrong! It’s one of the most dramatic events in Scottish history, and they managed to make a mess of it!
Mary duly gave birth to James – and, according to the film, wrote a load of soppy letters saying that she wanted Elizabeth to be his second mother. I don’t think so! Then what one of my school history teachers, who was rather given to dramatics – which were actually a pretty good way of keeping the class’s attention – described as “The Mysterious Death at Kirk o’Field”. Darnley’s house was blown up by gunpowder, and the bodies of Darnley and his servant, killed by strangulation rather than by the explosion, were found nearby. Bothwell was tried by the Privy Council but cleared of murder – although four of his servants were later convicted. To this day, no-one knows who was actually responsible. Was it Bothwell? Was it the Earl of Moray? Could it have been the Earl of Arran, who was probably the next heir to Scotland after Mary and James? Was Mary involved? We just don’t know. The reign of Mary Queen of Scots is so, so frustrating, because we just do not know what really went on! No film can be criticised for the way it deals with that, because no-one knows the truth.
I’ve already mentioned how it portrayed Mary’s marriage to Bothwell – and, again, no-one can be criticised for how they interpret something over which there’s so much confusion. But it went way off piste after that. The Battle of Carberry Hill, in which Mary was captured by lords opposed to Bothwell, just got passed over, and Mary’s imprisonment at Loch Leven, miscarriage and escape weren’t even mentioned. Instead, the next thing we knew, Mary was over the border and into England – OK, obviously this bit was true – and meeting Elizabeth in a laundry!!
What on earth? The 1971 film also showed Mary and Elizabeth meeting. They didn’t! I get that film makers like the idea of a dramatic showdown, but it never happened, and it’s so annoying when films, or TV dramas, just … well, lie! “Poetic licence”? You shouldn’t be using “poetic licence” with two of the best known figures in British history! And I can’t even decide if the scene was effective or just plain silly, with Elizabeth hiding behind the drying sheets and Mary chasing her round until they eventually came face to face.
I suppose it was dramatic in its way. And some of what was said wasn’t that unlikely. Elizabeth probably did envy Mary’s beauty and glamour. She must, surely, have envied the fact that Mary had a son and heir. But I doubt she envied Mary’s “bravery”. I’d imagine she probably thought that Mary had very poor judgement and had got herself into one mess after another. But this is all speculation: I haven’t really got a clue what the great Elizabeth I thought about Mary, Queen of Scots, and nor have the scriptwriters. But we do all know jolly well that Elizabeth and Mary never met, and it’s very irritating when historical films portray false events, and don’t even explain in a foreword or afterword that they’ve made them up.
After the laundry scene, it just jumped to the end, with Mary’s execution – although the very end wasn’t even about Mary, but about Elizabeth and her regrets. All the years of Mary’s imprisonment, the Casket Letters and their part in the ongoing debate about what really went on between Mary and Bothwell, all the plots … none of that got a mention. OK, the film was long enough as it was, and it would have taken another film to have got all that in, but it meant that only half a tale was being told. I hope they don’t make a sequel, though, because I dread to imagine what they’d do with that!
This was a fascinating period of history. There was no need to mess with the facts: they were exciting enough as it was. And, whilst it was gratifying to see Mary not being presented as a passive victim of events, I’m just beyond annoyed at the portrayal of Elizabeth. Not overly impressed with this film! I wouldn’t have missed it, because I don’t like to miss a historical film and this period of history is so familiar to me, but … well, I won’t ever be watching it again!