History on Film: genre, fact, and resonance in Mary Queen of Scots and The Favourite

By Laura Flannigan  (@LFlannigan17)

Within the first month of 2019, historians were treated to not one but two blockbuster movies: The Favourite (dir. Yorgos Lanthimos) and Mary Queen of Scots (dir. Josie Rourke). Both grossed millions of dollars in the short time since their worldwide release, reminding us that film is by far the most accessible form of historical representation for expert and non-expert audiences alike. In their immediate afterlives, their success and significance are open for debate. As Natalie Zemon Davis has reflected of her own role in bringing sixteenth-century France to the big screen, ‘it’s up to historians, those who have participated in the film and those who have seen it, to bring to the debate both an understanding of the possibilities of film and a knowledge of the past’.[1] In this spirit, last month The Cambridge Public and Popular History seminar invited the historical consultants of these new films, Professor John Guy (Fellow in History at Clare College, whose 2004 book My Heart is My Own was adapted for Mary Queen of Scots) and Dr Hannah Greig (Senior Lecturer in Early Modern History at the University of York, and consultant for The Duchess, Poldark, and The Favourite, amongst others) to discuss their experiences.

Professor Guy opened proceedings with a statement of the three elements key to any major motion picture: story arc, take, and cultural resonance. The differences between the two films reveal the flexibility of the period drama genre around these elements. Mary Queen of Scots depicts a period of history that is probably already familiar to many film-goers. It tells the story of the titular Mary Stuart’s early years on the Scottish throne and her relationship with Elizabeth I, decades before the Queen of Scots was executed at Elizabeth’s order. Like its source material, though, the film’s revisionist ‘take’ focuses on the initial solidarity between these ‘sister’ queens which later turned into enmity through the machinations of their male courtiers.

The Favourite explores the lesser-known early-eighteenth-century reign of Queen Anne, England’s third crowned queen, and the battle for her affections ensuing between her two court favourites and lovers, Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough, and Baroness Abigail Masham. The film presents Anne as a tragicomic figure, both pathetic and sympathetic. Where Mary Queen of Scots is a more traditional period drama – albeit employing effective colour-blind casting – The Favourite is situated within the highly theatrical, surreal world typical of Lanthimos’s oeuvre. It has been both praised and criticised for its reinvention of the genre. Regardless of their long periods of production, both films have been read as being of the ‘Me Too’ movement for their portrayals of assertive, sexual, ambitious, self-motivated and even cruel women – that is, of humanised women, rather than models of queenly virtue.

Popular expectations of what a period drama should look like, and what it should focus on, continues to shape critical discourse. In particular, historical films are often measured against a simplistic scale between ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’, Dr Greig observed. Of course, the job of a historical consultant often is to ensure visual accuracy. Though often deliberately anachronistic in its use of language (and dance moves), The Favourite has received accolades for its sumptuous set and costume designs, which enable audiences to visualise this period of history. Meanwhile, behind the scenes of Mary Queen of Scots, replica letters and maps visible in sequences featuring Elizabeth’s Privy Council were painstakingly created from scratch in a conscious effort to avoid the scrutiny of eagle-eyed spotters of ‘zips, bricks, and manicures’.[2]

Yet the supposed firm line between fact and fiction can never be so defined when the constraints of time, money, and accessibility of film-making come into play. As Professor Guy and Dr Greig revealed, both films employ ‘untruths’ for convenience. The Earl of Morton and the Earl of Moray are merged into one character in Mary Queen of Scots to avoid confusing the audience, and the choice was made not to give screen time to the War of the Spanish Succession or the death of Anne’s husband, Prince George of Denmark, in the dense and unfamiliar territory of The Favourite.  Elsewhere, complete fabrications are intended to convey emotional messages to viewers. For the producers of Mary Queen of Scots, and other previous dramatizations of the same period, the culmination of the exchange of letters between Mary and Elizabeth had to be their entirely fictional face-to-face meeting. In The Favourite, the invention of Queen Anne’s pet rabbits may seem in conflict with the eighteenth-century view of the animals as pests, but they help tell the little-known story of the loss of Anne’s seventeen children.

The open criticism of these elements of the films suggests that consultants and film-makers are still being held to an otherwise long-discarded objective standard for researching and representing the past. Yet film is a medium in which raising questions and interest may be as important as presenting hard facts. The immediate afterlives of these films and the volume of conversation around them, this seminar included, speak to the power of history on film to be challenging and culturally resonant.



[1]  Natalie Zemon Davis, ‘Movie of Monography? A Historian/Filmmaker’s Perspective?’, The Public Historian 25, no. 3 (2003), 48.

[2]  Hannah Furness, ‘The White Queen brings zips, bricks and manicures to the 15th century,’ The Telegraph, 18 June 2013.

Image: Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-87) by François Clouet / Portrait of Queen Anne (1665-1714) by John Closterman, made available under a made available under a Creative Commons licence.

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