Why Mary Queen of Scots has historians freaking out


Margot Robbie stars as Elizabeth I and Joe Alwyn as Robert Dudley in MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS. Photo courtesy: Liam Daniel / Focus Features

The new historical epic Mary Queen of Scots is written by Beau Willimon (creator of the American version of House of Cards) and is based on the 2004 biography Mary Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart by John Guy. Well, it’s mostly based on the biography by Guy. Willimon took a liberty with one simple scene and British historians are calling it “problematic.” I call it genius.

Spoilers ahead.

The rivalry of Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I has been dramatized in numerous films, plays and TV shows over the years because it’s just such a powerful and shocking story. Two young female cousins both ascend to their respective thrones in the 16thcentury. A first for Europe and both women know there’s a lot at stake, and for one, it’s her head.

Photo courtesy: Focus Features

Willimon says that over the centuries, Mary has unjustly been portrayed as the weaker of the two women.

“Mary,” says Willimon, “has often been described by historians as impulsive, reckless, overly emotional and naïve. But if you really dig deeper, you can see that a lot of that is the product of male historians who have wanted to diminish her. When you look at what she actually did and the reason she did it, she proved herself to be quite politically savvy.”

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Willimon argues that it was Elizabeth who really didn’t know what she was doing and that Mary was more prepared to be a queen.

“Mary had grown up in the court of France, she had been a crowned queen prior to returning to England and a lot of the choices she was making early on in her reign we’re not impulsive, reckless acts. They were considered deliberate strategies that would consolidate and perpetuate her own power.  If anything, it was Elizabeth who was looking to marry, saying to herself, ‘Wow, Mary seems to be getting everything right and I can’t seem to get anything right.’ Elizabeth had a lot more indecisiveness and insecurity and paranoia than Mary.”

The film a fascinating new take on a 500-year old story and breathes freshness into the ruthless dynamic between the Mary (Saoirse Ronan) and Elizabeth (Margot Robbie). When you have characters (and actresses!) this rich, Willimon thought they had to appear in at least one scene together, even if their meeting never happened in real life.

So is it okay to alter history in a movie about historical figures? Dr. Estelle Paranque, author of Elizabeth I of England through Valois Eyes, says no.

Saoirse Ronan stars as Mary Stuart in MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS. Photo courtesy: Liam Daniel / Focus Features

Paranque thinks putting false historical events on film is a bad idea and that Scotland has so much real exciting history there’s no need to invent a false one. She told the BBC, “How many people will have a wrong version of their own history and the history of Europe? I think that is problematic.”

But Willimon disagrees.

“I paid great attention to making sure everything we did in the film is acutely historically accurate. I felt, and Josie [Rourke, the director] did too, that there was a dramatic imperative to see these two women meet in person on screen. I also talked to John Guy [author of the biography Mary Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart] about it and it the consensus was we didn’t want to deprive the audience or these characters.”

The scene in which Mary and Elizabeth meet is the climax of the film and Willimon says there’s a good reason to take the liberty.

Photo courtesy: Liam Daniel / Focus Features

“You have to realize that what you’re doing is dramatizing the essential truth of this relationship.”

The feeling and sentiments expressed in the scene is based on letters and other writings from the time.

“You’re approaching the essential truth – if not a historical truth – and sometimes that has more value then the literal chronology. We’re not the first to do that, the great Schiller play about Mary Queen of Scots also envisions a face-to-face meeting so it’s really about accessing the emotional truth of these characters.”

Of course there was another famous writer who took endless liberties with history.

“Not to compare ourselves to Shakespeare at all,” says Willimon, “but certainly that is someone you always aim to emulate, especially when you’re telling a story set in this time period. The liberty he took with real historical characters whether it’s Henry V or Richard III, he took a lot more liberties than we did and that’s okay because what he was doing was aiming for a dramatic and emotional truth that he couldn’t have accessed any other way. So in that tradition we took a liberty in that scene.”

I for one am glad he did.

Willimon has this advice for screenwriters putting historical characters on the page.

“I think the key is to realize that the they are no different than us. You can get really caught up in the fact their clothes were different and maybe they had carriages instead of cars and couldn’t text one another, but they are still contending with the same universal themes of lust, joy, trust, betrayal – all the things that make us human. If you can get into their skin on that level, they’ll feel like they are living in the present tense for you and not the past.”

Mary Queen of Scots opens in theaters Dec. 7.



Shanee Edwards graduated from UCLA Film School with an MFA in Screenwriting and is currently the film critic for SheKnows.com. She recently won the Next MacGyver television writing competition to create a TV show about a female engineer. Her pilot, Ada and the Machine, is currently in development with America Ferrera's Take Fountain Productions. You can follow her on Twitter: @ShaneeEdwards

5 Replies to "Why Mary Queen of Scots has historians freaking out"

  • comment-avatar
    Izzy Hanson December 6, 2018 (2:18 am)

    At school–I’m not saying how long ago!–we learned that ‘there’s no such thing as historical fact’. Meaning something along the lines of we weren’t there & we only know what was written by others.
    Nevertheless, it’s possible to go too far & people will notice & probably complain. [For example: a TV documentary on WW2 had Lord Dowding putting his resignation letter into a self-sealing envelope. In 1940-something! This sticks in the memory for all the wrong reasons…]
    Dramatic licence? Well, you might get away with it. But don’t expect universal praise for deliberately misleading the punters. There’s too much of that around already.

  • comment-avatar
    Pamela Perry December 6, 2018 (4:58 am)

    Getting to the essential, and dramatic emotional truth! YES! Thank you.

  • comment-avatar
    Emily December 7, 2018 (4:44 pm)

    Finding it hard not to acknowledge Reign for having already written Mary as politically savvy and Elizabeth as driven by fear

  • comment-avatar
    Banditqueen January 29, 2019 (4:51 am)

    I am a historian and I saw the film yesterday. I am certainly not freaking out as the so called liberties are few. Yes the two Queens never met but it has a good place in this film. Rather than endless letters this meeting brings together the two women as human beings, the reasons behind their actions, their fears and hope and the uncertainty of the future. The meeting was well done and cinematic. The film is actually very accurate and remember it is a film, not a documentary. It has to entertain as well as tell the story of a remarkable woman. I was very impressed.

    • comment-avatar
      Shanee Edwards February 2, 2019 (5:46 pm)

      So glad you’re not freaking out, Banditqueen!

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