The first trailer for Mary Queen of Scots (December 7th, in wide release) contains a glaring bit of historical inaccuracy: The film's protagonists, Elizabeth I of England and her cousin Mary, heir to the Scottish throne, meet face-to-face. (In real life, they never met.)
Written by House of Cards show-runner Beau Willimon and directed by Josie Rourke, the first woman to serve as artistic director of a major London theater, the film is an examination of the relatively few personas available to historical women in positions of power. Margot Robbie's Elizabeth wasn't supposed to rule England in the first place—a girl born to the disgraced (and beheaded, and Protestant) Anne Boleyn, she ascended only after the deaths of her brother and her Catholic half-sister, Mary. Meanwhile, several hundred miles north of London, her cousin Mary, played by Saoirse Ronan, returned to Scotland after a childhood spent in France, looking to cement her claim to the Scottish throne and becoming embroiled in a series of bad marriages and even worse political plots.
Most depictions of Mary present her as the ultimate Lady Macbeth figure, while Elizabeth, who famously described herself as having "the heart and stomach of a king," is seen as almost predestined to become one of England's greatest monarchs. The film adds nuance to the story of two women pitted against each other by their families, their countries, and fate.
A version of this story originally appeared in the December/January 2019 issue of Pacific Standard.