Scotland on Screen: Mary Queen of Scots

Mary Queen of Scots is undoubtedly one of the most iconic figures of Scottish history. Her life, loves, triumphs and failures have been immortalised on stage, screen and even opera. From the 1923 silent film The Loves of Mary Queen of Scots, to Robert Icke’s current adaptation of Friedrich Schiller’s play Maria Stuart in London’s West End, no other Scotswoman has so vividly captured the imagination of artists, writers and composers alike. Hollywood too has found the romantic and tumultuous life of the Scots queen to be a winning formula for big-budget historical drama, with a new film centring on Mary currently in post-production. With a screenplay adapted from John Guy’s best-selling biography, experienced Shakespearean director Josie Rourke on board as well as a talented cast, including Saoirse Ronan as Mary, Margot Robbie as Elizabeth I and David Tennant as John Knox, I have high hopes for this one.

In anticipation of this new adaptation (released in cinemas November 2018) in this post I want to bring to light some of the most memorable depictions of Mary on the big and small screens. They are not necessarily the most popular or critically acclaimed renderings, rather they are the performances which have struck me in one way or another and continue to do so with every viewing. Enjoy!


Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007)

Director: Shekhar Kapur
Starring: Samantha Morton, Cate Blanchett, Clive Owen and Geoffrey Rush


This blockbuster film does not centre on the Scottish monarch but rather the later decades of Elizabeth I’s reign. Instead, Mary is reduced to more of a side character in this somewhat lacklustre follow-up to 1997’s stellar Elizabeth. Having been in captivity for almost twenty years, we first see Mary in a drab and grey Fotheringhay castle, for which film-makers used Eileen Donan castle near Skye. Despite being given woefully little screen time in contrast to Clive Owen’s forked goatee, Samantha Morton captivates as the incarcerated queen. She gives her character all the dignity, regal air and no-nonsense attitude of a mature monarch with a cast-iron understanding of her own status. She even evokes a sense of sexual superiority over the unmarried and childless Elizabeth: “They call her the Virgin Queen. Why is that Sir? Is it true no man will have her?”. Morton’s total habitation of this character is truly revealed when Mary’s incriminating letters against Elizabeth are found and she is told that she will be tried for treason. Realising she has lost the risky game she has been playing, she struggles to retain her composure before breaking into an impassioned outburst and crumbling to the floor. After Mary’s execution, Elizabeth is forced to come to terms with the fact that she has murdered God’s appointed queen, another opportunity for a compelling performance by Cate Blanchett.

Recommend? Morton and Blanchett offer raw and truthful performances in an otherwise tame, but highly watchable film. 7.5/10

Mary Queen of Scots (2013)

Director: Thomas Imbach
Starring: Camille Rutherford, Mehdi Debhi, Aneurin Barnard, Sean Biggerstaff, and Tony Curran.


A much smaller film with a narrower release, Thomas Imbach’s 2013 biopic highlights the years between Mary’s marriage to the teenage King Francis II of France and her capture in 1568. One of it’s many appeals is its use of French language for Mary’s inner dialogue and discussion with her French courtiers, which flows seamlessly between the English conversation. The film takes an interesting choice to focus heavily on Mary’s friendship with her confidant David Rizzio, and the fallout after his murder. At key moments of stress in Mary’s life when she feels most alone, she sees Rizzio as if he were alive and well, but it is wisely left unclear whether Mary is descending into madness. A more typical angle in Marian adaptations, her relationship with her cousin Elizabeth, is interpreted in an unconventional way. Mary’s narration and Rizzio’s puppetry, used very effectively in the film, reveals her desire for friendship with the English queen. As for negatives, rugged and stunning visuals are often turned unnerving by shaky camera work and odd music, which causes certain scenes to bear a striking similarity to the Children of the Stones opening titles. Camille Rutherford’s performance as Mary is a praise-worthy one, but lacks depth and at times leaves the viewer unconvinced. And although bolstered by a talented supporting cast, including a perfectly sinister Edward Hogg as Mary’s half-brother Moray, and Harry Potter alumnus Sean Biggerstaff as Mary’s third husband Lord Bothwell (yes, I see you, Oliver Wood), this alternative film struggles to retain the viewer’s attention with slow pacing and underdeveloped characters.

Recommend? If you already have a solid understanding of Mary’s story, and are into low-budget Indie films, this one could be for you. 6/10


Mary Queen of Scots (1971)

Director: Charles Jarrott
Starring: Vanessa Redgrave, Glenda Jackson, Timothy Dalton, Nigel Davenport and Ian Holm


In the family of Marian screen adaptations, if Imbach’s 2013 film is the alternative and quirky twenty-something daughter, then Charles Jarrott’s 1971 epic is the steely, self-assured matriarch. Despite being more than a little cheesy, this movie has stood the test of time and remains my favourite. As soon as the opening trumpet fanfare gloriously blasts through the speakers, you know what follows is going to be just as bold, exciting and yes, camp. At times, more camp than a row of tents. The several death scenes in particular are a delightfully unsettling mix of garish and gruesome. Despite this, what could have easily turned into a silly period romp managed to stay on the right side of ostentatious and deliver a historical drama which packs a serious punch. This is undoubtedly down to the superb dialogue and terrific acting from all the cast, particularly  the two female leads. At first, Vanessa Redgrave’s naive and petulant Mary is dwarfed by Glenda Jackson’s larger-than-life Elizabeth. But as the movie goes on Redgrave shows us flashes of a highly astute and strong-willed woman who blossoms when the pair meet for the second and final time. The historical inaccuracy of this scene does not bother me in the slightest (in reality the pair never actually met), because the electricity which seems to ripple in the air between them is so compelling. Redgrave and Jackson perfectly embody two women worn down by their decades of enmity. When Mary finally meets her end, and Elizabeth faces the truth that she murdered the one person who most understood the burden of being queen, I could not help but be reminded of a line in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s brilliant musical Hamilton, “[she] may have been the first one to die/ but I’m the one who paid for it/ I survived but I paid for it.”

Recommend? Wordy and over-the-top, but with well-developed characters and Oscar-worthy performances from the two female leads, this one is worth checking out. 9/10


And finally a word on Reign

Reign (2013-17)

Creators: Laurie McCarthy and Stephanie Sengupta
Starring: Adelaide Kane, Megan Follows, Toby Regbo and Rachel Skarsten


I feel about Reign the same way I feel about nightclubs. In theory, they both offer likeable elements: with the former, it’s the lavish production, historical setting and intriguing plot, and with the latter it’s music, dancing and social interaction. What’s more, as a twenty-something woman and the target audience for both, they should be right up my street, right? Wrong. Instead, immersing myself in either leaves me feeling awkward, uncomfortable and brings me out in an anxiety-induced rash (OK, the latter may not be true of Reign, but you get the idea). My point is that Reign has all the promising ingredients and yet it delivers so little. Not only is the dialogue infantile and the storytelling lazy, the main issue with this admittedly good-looking but fluffy TV show, is that it has no clue who its audience is. It takes itself too seriously to be a fun teen romance, but not seriously enough to be a gripping drama. It also clearly copies aspects of successful historical/fantasy shows, the integration of contemporary music a la Peaky Blinders and the sexiness of Game of Thrones, in order to hit that winning formula but instead fails miserably (see this sparring scene with Bastille’s Pompeii layered over the top). And while I’m no snob when it comes to accuracy, I was, quite frankly, insulted when 10 minutes into the first episode, we see Mary leaving a nunnery where she has lived with its community for the last decade (???) and the exterior shot shows it to be in ruins. The programme makers could not even be bothered to CG a roof onto the ruined monastery where they filmed the scene. Painful.

Recommend? If you want something pretty to look at which doesn’t require much thinking, you can find all four seasons of Reign on Netflix (but only until the end of February, even Netflix are aware this show isn’t one worth watching). 3.5/10

Have you seen any of these adaptations? What did you think of them?

Have I missed any that you would recommend?

As always, leave a comment below.

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