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Mary Stuart biopic offers a new take on a timeless tale

Nikolas Fischer
December 7, 2018

Love, murder and conspiracy: The story of the 16th-century Scottish Queen has retained its intrigue and appeal through the ages. "Mary Queen of Scots," a new film by Josie Rourke, adds a darker tone to Stuart's legacy.

BG Maria Stuart - Mary Queen Of Scots von Josie Rourke 2018
Image: Imago/ZUMA Press/New Line Cinemax

Yes, another film about Maria Stuart. Mary Queen of Scots, which debuts November 7 in the US, is yet another take on the life and death of the 16th-century queen who was beheaded in 1587 for treason.

Billed as the "epic clash of queens that changed the course of history," director Josie Rourke's highly theatrical version of the historic drama was scripted by Beau Willimon, who wrote the first four seasons of House of Cards and is a master at contriving grand scheming for the screen.

Josie Rourke
Director Josie Rourke Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/Invision/C. Pizzello

Rourke made her name in the stage arts as artistic director at the Donmar Warehouse theater in London, and she infuses the power game between Elizabeth I., Queen of England (played by Margot Robbie) and her cousin Maria Stuart, Queen of Scotland (played by Saoirse Ronan) with a dark, somber and deviously wicked tone. 

In her film directing debut, Rourke chooses to highlight a peculiarly female power struggle in the male-dominated 16th-century.

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An old story

Love and intrigue, murder and conspiracies — as far back as 1800, German playwright Friedrich Schiller saw the dramatic potential of the tale of infighting between the two monarchs and cousins, as well as the male members of the aristocracy and the Catholic and Protestant faiths.

His five-act play premiered in Weimar in 1800 and is still popular on stage. It's also still included in most German high school reading lists.

Mary and Elizabeth: It's complicated

Two royal cousins fight for the English throne, setting in motion intrigue and revolt. Mary is thought to have been involved in the murder of her second husband, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley. Her marriage to his suspected killer, James Hepburn, the 4th Earl of Bothwell, caused the Scottish people to turn their backs on her, so she fled to England and her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I.

Elizabeth feared for her throne as long as Mary was alive, but if she agreed to an execution, she feared she would be seen as cruel. The English parliament finally convinced Elizabeth that her cousin must die, since she was suspected of involvement in a plot to kill Elizabeth. After years of imprisonment, Mary Stuart is executed on February 8, 1587.

This latest film version of a timeless tale was called a "vigorous and provocative historical fiction" by the New York Times, and has been widely praised by critics. Click through the gallery above to see how other directors have portrayed Mary, Queen of Scots on the big screen.