Should you watch a movie like Mary Queen of Scots for historical knowledge?
Mary Queen of Scots Synopsis
Newly widowed Mary Stuart returns to her homeland of Scotland to be queen. Her lineage immediately positions her as a potent threat to England’s Elizabeth Tudor, while her fiery nature and Catholic beliefs see her clashing with the Scottish nobility and the Scottish Protestant Church. In an attempt to weaken Mary’s claim to the English throne, Elizabeth then proposes a political marriage between Mary and Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester, a proposal that quickly falls through for various reasons. Mary, however, does fall in love with the suave Henry Stuart, secretly also dispatched to Scotland by Elizabeth. Her subsequently marriage to Henry marks the start of her downfall. After fleeing to England, Mary would be imprisoned for years, before beheaded for treason.
As I wrote in my visual summary above, Mary, Queen of Scots is opinionated history. There has been pretty harsh criticism from some circles regarding this. On that, all I can say is, this is certainly not the first “historical” movie to adopt such an approach. Isn’t it foolish for someone to rely on movies like this for historical knowledge?
In addition, I’d highlight the movie has a fiercely feminist touch too. Now, I don’t know whether this also invited disdain; I suspect it did. For those who are bothered, perhaps I could remind that history is often an imprecise science. 16th century Scotland and England were also dominated by strong-willed women. Don’t you agree women had to be extraordinary, and story-worthy, in an era when men still firmly controlled the guns and halberds?
Coming back to the question of whether I enjoyed the movie, I did, to be honest. (And not because of the sexy bits, oh please) I think one thing that the movie did do right was its streamlining of confusing historical details. Things like, why couldn’t the Earl of Moray be king? Why did Mary have a right to the English throne? Heck, who the hell were the Stuarts? Or Stewards????
By focusing on the personal tribulation of the two queens, the story is succinct enough to be enjoyable even for viewers completely unfamiliar with English history, on top of being a magnificent acting showcase for Ronan and Robbie. Now, of course, this brings us back to the issue of historicity. Is it ethical, or responsible, to dramatize history this way for the sake of a movie? Personally, my answer is a no. But then I remind myself that I watched this on a Saturday evening, after fast food. What’s important to me, I conclude, is whether I bother to check Wikipedia and my books thereafter for “facts.”