I cannot think of any more popular subject for movies, TV shows, plays and books than the reigns of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I in England and Mary in Scotland. The time period is almost a century long, from Henry's ascension to the throne in 1509 to Elizabeth's death in 1603. Before we get to the fictionalized version of their stories, let's look at the facts.
Henry VIII came to the throne when he was only 17 years old. He married a Spanish princess, Catherine, who was Henry's deceased brother, Arthur's, wife (Arthur died at 15 and Catherine swore the marriage had never been consummated.) Henry went through a succession of wives in an attempt to father a male heir. When the Pope refused to allow him to divorce Catherine, Henry broke from the Roman Catholic Church and established the Church of England, bringing Protestantism to England. His marriage to Catherine produced a Catholic female, Mary Tudor, who reigned briefly after Henry's death but was succeeded by Elizabeth I, Henry's child by Anne Boleyn, his second wife, who reigned for forty-five years, but left no heir.
Mary Queen of Scots' grandmother was Henry VIII's sister and therefore Mary and Elizabeth were cousins, once removed. In the tangled web of European royalty, this was not exactly a close relationship. More importantly, Mary was raised a Catholic and Elizabeth a Protestant. At that time, the religious affiliation of a monarch could determine whether a country remained Catholic or not. The 1500's saw the rise Martin Luther and the Reformation in Europe, the beginning of Protestantism.
The story of Mary and Elizabeth has fascinated writers for almost five centuries. Elizabeth has been played on screen by every generation's great actress from Sarah Bernhardt to Cate Blanchett. Bette Davis played her twice, in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex and The Virgin Queen.
Mary, also, has a long cinematic pedigree, dating from cinema's earliest days when Thomas Edison in 1895 made an eighteen second movie showing Mary's execution. In 1936, Katherine Hepburn played her in a John Ford film. In 1971, Vanessa Redgrave portrayed the doomed Queen while Glenda Jackson gave us a preview of her much lauded TV portrayal of Elizabeth I.
Now, a new movie, Mary, Queen of Scots, is devoted to the relationship between the two monarchs and has given Saorise Ronon (Lady Bird) as Mary and Margo Robbie (I, Tonya) as Elizabeth the chance to put their marks on these iconic roles. British theatre director, Josie Rourke, makes her film directorial debut of a Beau Williamon (House of Cards (Netflix)) script.
The performances of the two divas are very good, but, sadly, wasted in this plodding attempt to light a fire under this oft told story. The movie's sets and costumes are the best part of the movie, and credit must be given to the open casting, giving Adrian Lester the opportunity to play an English Lord who acts as an ambassador for Elizabeth to Mary.
The problems start immediately with one of those written prologues we see in so many historical dramas. Whenever I see one of these prologues I want to shout at the screen - a movie should not seem but be! If a fact is important, make it part of the movie, a visual medium, even in its silent era.
From there, the movie both tells us too little and too much. For example, it keeps referring to Mary and Elizabeth as 'sisters', which, if they were, would make their relationship very different. Also, the movie has Mary and other characters claim that she has a more legitimate claim to the English throne than Mary. Not true. It does show the importance of religion in the quarrel between the two Queens, but it does not make clear that, at that time, Scotland was a seperate, legitimate country from England.
The movie revolves around Mary's marriages, first to an English Lord and then to a Scottish nobleman. She does have one child, James, by the Englishman. Elizabeth never married and we see the physical change she undergoes when she contracts smallpox, scarring her face and causing her hair to fall out. Both women find themselves alone in a court of men, all of whom think that they know better than a woman what is best for her and their country. The founder of the Presbyterian Scottish Church, John Knox (David Tennant), rails against Mary, preaching that a woman can never rule a country. Mary is betrayed by the men in her life, including her half-brother. Elizabeth is shown to be more successful because, as the script claims, she becomes more man than woman.
When a country is ruled by a monarch, the monarch's children are not just fodder for tabloids, as they are today - no, having a child to ascend to the throne was one of the most solemn duties of a monarch. Mary succeeded; Elizabeth did not.
While history shows that Mary and Elizabeth never met, no fictional version of their story can resist a meeting of the two protagonists. In this version, they meet in what looks looks like a 16th century laundromat, with semi-transparent sheets screening them from each other's view as they walk around in a kind of textile version of Orson Welles's House of Mirrors in The Lady From Shanghai. It doesn't work. Rourke is betrayed by her theatre background as she forgets that five minutes in movietime can seem like a lifetime - the cousins seem to spend an eternity walking among the sheets before coming face to face.
A final word to anyone who wants to fictionalize this story in the future, forget the facts and follow the drama.