It’s never easy making a historical drama for the big screen – stick too close to the history and you can end up with a stodgy story that can turn audiences off; play too fast and loose with the facts and you’ll have historians lining up to point out the flaws. For Josie Rourke, director of Mary Queen Of Scots, the answer was, well, a bit of both.
An established theatre director making her first leap to the big screen, Rourke didn’t let that particular challenge put her off. “This was a kind of go big or go home first screen adventure,” she tells Den of Geek when we catch up with her in London. “I just had this instinct about Mary that her story would benefit from a retelling.”
Based on John Guy’s biography Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart, the film picks up in 1561, when the Scottish monarch (played by Saoirse Ronan) returns to her homeland to rule after spending most of her youth in France. Spanning a 25-year period, Rourke’s drama follows the power plays of Mary’s reign and the machinations behind her ultimate exile, culminating in her execution.
“It cleaves very closely to the history,” says Rourke. “I think it’s important to say that a lot of history is the conclusions that historians draw from primary documents. What John’s book does is it goes back to the source materials and draws some different conclusions.”
“John’s a forensic historian as well as a vivid writer and he discovered that, even within her own lifetime, Mary had been fairly comprehensively maligned and ‘fake newsed’,” she continues. “What he unearthed was a lot of hiding, destroying or overwriting of the archives about Mary’s life, which either branded her as a tragic figure who was too emotional to be a competent politician, or basically ‘slut-shamed’ her.
“I just wanted to get rid of that, like John’s book did – to go back to the primary documents around Mary’s history and identity and try and tell a more truthful story.”
A meeting of minds
But what’s really interesting about the film is how it portrays Mary’s relationship with her English cousin, Queen Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie) – a fierce yet respectful, almost sisterly rivalry that played out over a series of fascinating letters. While the film largely sticks to a voiceover-led back-and-forth, it does imagine one key scene where the two queens meet.
As you might have guessed, it’s this scene that has really got staunch fact-checkers’ tails in a spin. It’s also one of the film’s standout sequences, giving Ronan and Robbie a platform to really show off their acting A-game.
“They emphatically never met,” confirms Rourke. “That meeting is based on a gigantic correspondence. Doing it all by letter would make for an incredibly dry film, so that’s an act of imagination based on that correspondence.
“But the other thing is that we are not the first people to do that, as much as I would like to claim that we are,” she says, referring to the plethora of plays, operas, movies and TV shows that have portrayed a similarly made-up meeting between Mary and Elizabeth. “It sits in a tradition of great roles for women.”
Luckily, Rourke says, her two stars were more than up for the challenge. “Saoirse and Margot really inhabit their roles and that’s exciting to me. They are incredibly intelligent woman but they’re also very physical creatures, and they complement each other’s energy. Mary and Elizabeth are two sides of the same coin. There’s a magnetic thing going on – they attract and repel. That’s always a powerful energy if you can get that right on screen – and I think they have it.”
Sign of the times
Another criticism often aimed at big-screen historical dramas is that they filter past events through a modern lens, using them as a device to channel social commentary. As Rourke says, though, that’s not always the case – in fact, there are aspects of historical society that match our own more closely than we think.
Case in point? Mary’s friend and confidant, David Rizzio (Ismael Cruz Córdova), and her second husband, Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden) – two well-known figures from Scottish history. Rizzio was accused of being Mary’s secret lover, and became a pawn in the plot to oust Mary from the throne. What hasn’t been explored before though, on the big screen at least, is a more complicated relationship between the three…
“What’s been interesting about the response to the film in some quarters is the idea that we have tacked on that Rizzio was homosexual and that Darnley was bisexual,” says Rourke. “But we know that. Darnley’s nickname in the Scottish court was the ‘great cock chick’. It was an incredibly queer period in that sense, and I feel like some people have sort of responded to that as if it’s a 21st-century imposition.
“Actually, I think we have largely forgotten how queer the 16th century was. And that’s partly because it’s not taught – we sweep it under our big educational carpet. So that actually is about really reigniting some of the things that we’ve always known to be the case.”
Likewise, while the film might be especially relevant to today’s societal climate in terms of its feminist angle, Rourke points out that the challenges faced by the two queens in their respective, male-dominated courts certainly haven’t been overly dramatised.
“They faced gigantic odds, not only in improving their legitimacy to be the ruler of their countries, but also their legitimacy to hold that place as a woman,” she says. “It’s certainly the case that this was a period of history where many people thought it was against nature for women to lead… I’m not sure that’s totally bled out of our culture just yet.”
Mary Queen Of Scots is in cinemas now