29 Dec 2018



There was always a touch of wild about the Queen of Scots. Perhaps it was the return to her native Scotland that set it loose. Like the legend of England’s Arthur, perhaps the spirit of the land was not so different from that of its true queen—beautiful, but shy of harness.

—David Teems, Majestie: The King Behind the King James Bible (Harper Collins, 2011) 




THE ABOVE QUOTE FROM MAJESTIE: THE KING BEHIND THE KING JAMES BIBLE is taken from Chapter 1, appropriately titled “Mom and Dad (or An Evening with the Macbeths).” The subtitle in parentheses refers to the fire and powder relationship between the “dashing, spoiled, rash, overconfident, dangerous, and severely misinformed” Henry, Lord Darnley, and the “lovely but unwise, charming but unlucky” Queen of Scots, the unfortunate Mary. The film does her commendable justice in spite of the odds against her. The short-lived but incautious Darnley has the dash, the flaunt, the height, the "astonishingly" good looks Antonia Fraser describes, and all the profligacy that goes with it.  


But I am getting ahead of myself.


I can’t remember ever writing a review of any film, but I couldn’t resist saying a few words about this one. I recommend it highly. If you have read my 2011 biography of King James, it will be a particular treat. By the way, in the afterglow, as the credits at the end were rolling, and as others were leaving the theater, I said to the lady a few seats from me, "wasn't that great?" Sharing my excitement, we talked at an elevated pitch for about fifteen minutes or so, during which time she bought a copy of my book MAJESTIE from Amazon as we spoke. Hooray for Hollywood!


I confess my doubts about historical films. Being a fan of Cate Blanchett’s Elizabeth I in the 1998 film ELIZABETH and its 2007 sequel, ELIZABETH: THE GOLDEN AGE, I expected this new film by Focus Features on Mary Stuart (mother of James) to take the same liberties Hollywood histories most often take. While the Elizabeth (Blanchett) films were reckless in their departure from the actual history, with a few minor exceptions MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS (directed by Josie Rourke) is refreshingly true to known scholarship. And for good reason. The movie is based on the excellent 2004 biography by John Guy, QUEEN OF SCOTS: THE TRUE LIFE OF MARY STUART (Houghton Mifflin), one of the many books read in preparation for MAJESTIE. Guy was one of the writers of the film.


By the way, pay little attention to the reviews. The ones I have read so far, slave to fashion as they tend to be, are based on the usual Hollywood norms. The beauty of MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS is that it is based on real events accurately portrayed, not overburdened with exaggeration or caricature. I was not surprised that I got tears in my eyes at the birth of baby James.


The faults in this film are minor compared to most films of its kind. When the unfortunate musician-companion of Mary’s, the Italian David Rizzio, is brutally stabbed to death in her presence, a knife is held to the pregnant queen’s belly instead of a pistol. Like I said, a minor infraction. The scene itself is startlingly authentic, easily the bloodiest reenactment in the film. Rizzio jumps behind the queen and cries for mercy. He is given close to 60 stab wounds in return. As my book describes it, "the action is frenetic, with a Lord of the Flies kind of ferocity."


Where Hollywood takes the greatest liberty is in the depiction of Elizabeth (Margot Robbie), who comes off a bit soft against the whirlwind Queen of Scots (Saoirse Ronan). It is true that Elizabeth considered Mary a threat to her rule, and with reason. But thanks to her exceptional cunning, an iron will, and the dark genius of her first minister, William Cecil, that threat was never allowed expression. Though the hiss between them was audible (and entertaining), Mary was just outmatched by her more formidable cousin. The film leaned toward Mary's strengths, as a fawn among jackals. In reality, however, she was at least coauthor of her own demise. It is her wildness that attracts us, that gives her weight and presence in our imagination.


Caution might have saved her. But caution was not one of Mary's endowments. With all the charm at her disposal, making a few friends might have saved her, or at least the right friends. A better marriage might have saved her. The smallest measure of prudence might have saved her. But she is a young woman attempting rule in an unruly, treacherous, scambling, and male-dominated country, in a male-dominated world.

—Majestie: The King Behind the King James Bible (Harper Collins, 2011)  


It is with the depiction of the Presbyterian firebrand-preacher-tyrant-misogynist John Knox (David Tennant) that the film serves history with the clearest eye (and amused me the most). Knox railed against Mary from his perch, inciting cries of "Burn the whore!" Knox, in real life, to show his aggravation of women in power, wrote a scathing little piece of scorn called The First Blaste of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women (1558). Inflated as its title, Knox thought of himself as the unnamed ruler of Scotland. 


Among other things, his Blaste claimed that it was "repugnant to nature" for a woman to rule. Because they were weak, fragile, impatient, feble and foolishe . . . vnconstant, variable, cruell, lacking the spirit of counsel and regiment."

Majestie: The King Behind the King James Bible (Harper Collins, 2011)


Whether it hardened his opinion or not, Knox was a foot shorter than Mary, both literally and figuratively. As bold as the bully pulpiteer was in the face of Mary, with conspirators slithering all around her (using his rant to their advantage), he avoided Elizabeth altogether. Knox might have been a zealous, self-righteous prig, but he wasn't stupid. He knew Elizabeth to be more cunning and more lethal than himself. She barred the little man from entering her kingdom. But, sadly, he did help cultivate Mary's public image.


No film can tell the whole story, but the realism and authenticity of MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS offers at least an image of the lovely but unlucky Mary, and with the star power of Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie to give it both sizzle and legitimacy. I would personally love to see more Elizabeth movies with Margot Robbie as the fiery queen. My guess is she had to play Elizabeth with restraint not to douse the light from its titled protagonist. That is not to diminish Saiorse Ronan's Mary, whom I consider the most authentic I have yet to see. Next to Martin Luther and possibly Jesus, as much has been written about the Queen of Scots as any historical figure. She will, I am certain, continue to mystify, dazzle, bewilder, and enchant for generations to come.  




As you may have guessed by now, I liked the film. I am now rereading Guy's great book (on my new Kindle). Days before Christmas, I went to see the film by myself. After raving about it (my first review) to Benita, she wants to see it too. We are going to Green Hills Cinema this afternoon. Hooray for . . . well, you know. 








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