THERE’S definitely something about this Mary. The tragic story of Scotland’s most charismatic monarch, Mary Queen of Scots, has captured Hollywood’s imagination with two new films, and a US drama series set for release in the next year. And in Britain an opera based on her life will soon be staged.
For many years Mary played a supporting role in films about her powerful cousin, Elizabeth I of England, but now film makers have turned their attention to the dramatic life of the young woman who was queen of Scotland and France by the age of 16, widowed at 18, driven into exile and executed at 44.
The two films are both called Mary Queen Of Scots and the first will have its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival next month. In the US, a television series called Reign, starring Australian soap actress Adelaide Kane, will be broadcast in October.
Off-screen, a Mary Queen of Scots exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh is proving one of the summer’s most popular attractions and later this year, Welsh National Opera will present their production of Gaetano Donizetti’s 1835 tragedy, Maria Stuarda (Mary Stuart).
Thomas Imbach, the Swiss director and co-writer of one of the Mary Queen of Scots films, starring Camille Rutherford in the title role, said he was drawn to the monarch’s “boldness and passion”.
He said: “My main interest is not Mary as a queen, but as a woman. As queen, Elizabeth was more modern and Mary more old-fashioned, but as a woman Mary was far more ahead of her time, she fought to live her own passion, and that really impressed me. She wanted to have it all.”
Imbach’s film spans all of Mary’s short life, but focuses much of its attention on her early, turbulent years including her childhood in France, her role as a young queen in Scotland and the political scrutiny she came under as a Catholic monarch from Protestant reformers in Edinburgh.
A tall, auburn-haired beauty who spoke six languages, Mary makes a beguiling leading lady. Both films and the television drama put the monarch at the heart of the story, with their own wide-ranging interpretations of her life.
David Forsyth, curator of the NMS exhibition, said that none of the current productions had approached the museum for advice on historical accuracy, but said he was not unduly worried about what would end up on the screen. “People can re-write history for Hollywood, but there is enough latitude in Mary’s story that the imagination can run riot creatively. I take a robust view of the fictionalisation of history on screen. Anything that adds to or stokes the fires of interest in history is a good thing. The films will do that,” he said.
He added that many people were drawn to Mary’s life story because she was a woman living in a male-dominated world, but also she was a “hugely romantic” figure with a “very human love and passion” that sets here apart from other prominent Scottish figures.
The producers of the television series, Reign, which was filmed in Ireland, make clear that theirs is a “fantastical reimagining” of the teenage Mary Queen of Scotland. It is being pitched as Games of Thrones meets Sofia Coppola’s film, Marie Antoinette.
The second Mary Queen of Scots film is written by the screenwriter Michael Hirst whose earlier work included the films Elizabeth and Elizabeth: the Golden Age as well as the television period drama The Tudors.
Of all the productions, Hirst’s is the only one filmed in Scotland and stars the Irish actress, Saoirse Ronan. It is due to be released next year.
Siobhan Synnot, Scotland on Sunday’s film critic, said it was not unusual for movie studios to produce work on the same subject. In 1996, two films about Truman Capote’s experience writing In Cold Blood were released within 12 months of each other. “There have been years where there were two films about volcanos, two films about meteors, and two lots of feisty Snow Whites,” she said.
But Imbach said that he was unconcerned by the prospect of other films about Mary Queen of Scots. Having worked on the project since 2008, he said he had seen other productions on the same subject, including one major Hollywood film with Scarlett Johannson in the lead role, fall by the wayside.
He added that he had a theory that the Hollywood template of film making did not suit the Scottish monarch’s life. “I had a hard time to decide on how you could hold the essence of her whole life in one film.
“The beginning and the end are crucial, but it’s over these very dramatic years. Then on the one hand you have her three husbands and then you have this relationship with Elizabeth, so you have different layers, and normally you go for one straight plot in a historic drama. But as my protagonist, I wanted to have it all, and at the end I was happy to have a portayal of her inner life.”