'Mary Queen Of Scots' Takes New Look At The Life Of Mary Stuart11:03
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Saoirse Ronan stars as Mary Stuart in "Mary Queen of Scots." (Liam Daniel/Focus Features)MoreCloseclosemore
Saoirse Ronan stars as Mary Stuart in "Mary Queen of Scots." (Liam Daniel/Focus Features)

The new film "Mary Queen of Scots" begins at the end with Mary Stewart heading to the executioner's block in 1587 at the age of 44. But we then learn how she got there.

The young Queen Mary, who was a Catholic raised in France for her safety because of religious turmoil in Scotland, returns home to rule her country at the age of 18. But Protestants are now in control of Scotland, and they reign in England where Mary also has a claim to that throne.

But it's occupied by Queen Elizabeth, played by Margot Robbie. Mary, played by Saoirse Ronan, is hoping the older Elizabeth doesn't have an heir and clears a path for her. But the Privy Council in England is horrified at the thought of a Catholic becoming the heir, says screenwriter Beau Willimon (@BeauWillimon).

"What you see time and time again is Elizabeth beginning to question their advice and actually consider the possibility of Mary becoming her heir," he tells Here & Now's Robin Young. "If Mary could get Elizabeth to agree that she would be the heir, assuming that Elizabeth didn't have any children, then they would have been able to coexist peaceably, and they came very close to making that deal."

The two queens face misogyny, but instead of forming a sisterhood, they get inside each other's heads. Director Josie Rourke (@josierourke) says the two women had a fascination with each other.

"That fascination is because they are literally on the same island," she tells Young. "They're both doing the same job, and nobody else is doing that job. Only they can know what it is like to be the other.

Interview Highlights

On the film being based on the book, "Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stewart" 

Beau Willimon: "John Guy's book really challenged a lot of the stereotypes we have had about Mary and Elizabeth over the years. Oftentimes, Mary is portrayed as impulsive and reckless, overemotional, naive, and Elizabeth is portrayed as being cold, calculated and shrewd, and really and both of those are wrong. Mary was really quite deliberate and politically savvy with the choices that she was making, and Elizabeth at that time was quite indecisive and insecure. In many ways, Mary's challenge to her own legitimacy burnished Elizabeth into becoming the Elizabeth that we've all come to know. So we really wanted to tell a story that made us rethink these two women and really allow them to tell their own stories rather than let the historiography of a lot of people that have had it out for Mary over the centuries do the storytelling for us."

Josie Rourke: "What we're trying to do is avoid the stereotype of them, and I think the stereotype is one was cold and calculating, one was emotional and incompetent. And I just don't think that's borne out by the detailed reality that John Guy went into so forensically nor do I think he actually reflects women's lives then, let's call it a workplace. I mean, obviously they were crowned heads of Europe. But I think we're now in a position where what we need to start to do is tell better and more honest stories about the realities of leadership for women, and this canvas gave us an opportunity to do that."

Margot Robbie stars as Queen Elizabeth I in "Mary Queen of Scots." (Liam Daniel/Focus Features)
Margot Robbie stars as Queen Elizabeth I in "Mary Queen of Scots." (Liam Daniel/Focus Features)

On the imagined scene where the two queens meet face-to-face

Willimon: "We decided to take a liberty, and that was to have these two women meet, and we did it for a few reasons. I mean, oftentimes historical fact as portrayed literally can actually fall short in giving the audience access to the true complexity and dynamic between two characters, and running through the core of the story for us was the notion, which history supports, that ultimately, these two women, their instincts were to find ways to coexist with one another amicably. And yet the political tectonic plates of the time really prevented them from being able to. And the only way for us to fully dramatize the emotional complexity of that was to put them face-to-face rather than simply rely on epistolary storytelling through correspondence."

Rourke: "What runs in those books and all the really great screen adaptations of that story are two people who have the intelligence and the sympathy, and the understanding that really drives them to simply want to be in the same space and want to look each other in the eye, and there's great drama in the roots of that ... in this extraordinary, imagined, climactic scene of the film in which those two queens do look at each other face-to-face."

"Oftentimes, Mary is portrayed as impulsive and reckless, overemotional, naive, and Elizabeth is portrayed as being cold, calculated and shrewd, and really and both of those are wrong."

Beau Willimon

On the decision to film that scene even though it wasn't historically accurate

Willimon: "I could ask the same question of Shakespeare really, right? I mean, you look at all of you know his history plays where he took much wilder liberties than we have with this film. And the reason he's doing it is because there's an emotional or essential truth that he's trying to get to in revealing something to you about the character. And there's also a narrative expectation from the audience that we follow these two women over the course of this film, and it would be a shame not to have these two great characters played by these two extraordinary actors share the same screen at the same time. You would be subverting a narrative expectation that has quite a pool to it."

On the fascination with these two women and with royalty 

Rourke: "Great writers have always enjoyed writing about great and troubled leaders. I also think that what we're beginning to see, and I've got great hope and joy for this really, is a powerful sense, which seemed to slip away from us for a while, that a woman or women can sit as the leads in a movie and was certainly true having spent most of my career in the theater, is that you know you are looking quite hard to find the same volume in the canon of leading parts for women as you are for men. So really this reminting at these big classic roles, and thinking and rethinking about women in power and leadership and what that means, and actually the honesty with which the stories are being told, I think is a really positive cultural moment and comes from partly a commercial desire because actually women are going to sell tickets and people are going to see that, but also just a quiet passion to have those stories better told with more humanity."

On how Queen Mary's son, King James, ruled a united Britain after Elizabeth died 

Willimon: "In some ways, James ... his two parents really are Mary and Elizabeth. It was, in a way, them achieving some of union because Elizabeth helped raise James. James was in many ways closer to Elizabeth than to his own imprisoned mother, and he did unify both those kingdoms. So Mary, in her own fashion, did win at the end of the day, but I think Elizabeth did, too because she also found a way to maintain her power and ultimately, create a space for James. So they both navigated it in their own fashion, and you know unfortunately for Mary, with great cost."

Rourke: "I should actually probably say just before given that I live in England my doormat fills up with letters from Scottish nationalists that he unified the two kingdoms in holding titles over both, but he did govern them separately. So it wasn't the union that we now have."


Emiko Tamagawa produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Samantha Raphelson adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on December 6, 2018.

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