Roughly a third of the way through Colette, currently in UK cinemas, Keira Knightley’s titular author muses that ‘the hand that holds the pen writes history.’ This line – featured prominently in the trailers – proves fateful: Colette achieves recognition for her work and stories through her masterful storytelling and self-determination against societal odds, earning a place in the literary canon and two biopic feature films. The UK release of Mary Queen of Scots this week and the host of period films dominating awards ceremonies provide a fantastic opportunity to examine and reevaluate how questions of historical accuracy shape, hinder, and aid discussion around the stories and peoples film can portray.
Throughout cinematic (and literary, and theatrical) history, the past and its people have provided fantastic jumping off points for gripping narratives. The veracity of the stories told, however, has varied, and it can be argued that this does not matter. A film is meant to entertain, challenge, and engross its viewers. Unlike a documentary, education is not its primary focus. When history is obscured – thanks to conflicting politicised recounts, lack of first-hand account, and the distance of time – the only right choice is to recreate the tale for a modern audience. While these choices should be skilfully handled, they should not be the measure of a film’s quality.
Josie Rourke’s feature film debut has come under fire for its variations from the truth – namely, for inventing Mary’s and Elizabeth’s in-person meeting, exaggerating their move from allies to enemies, and not keeping Mary’s real French accent. Those points aside, reviews suggest that Mary Queen of Scots’ narrative beats and primary facts do not deviate far from the truth; any embellishments merely add dramatic stakes and coherency.
Rourke, however, cannot claim to originate the meeting between queens: the 1971 and 1936 films (starring Venessa Redgrave and Katharine Hepburn respectively), the 1835 Donizetti opera, and the 1800 Schiller play are notable predecessors in this regard. Even with creative precedent on her side, the creation of this event provides an engaging dramatisation of Mary and Elizabeth’s conversations via letters – it is hard to imagine this portrayal a detriment in a visual medium. Furthermore, considering that accents have changed over the centuries – Shakespeare’s original troupe sounded closer to Appalachia than Received Pronunciation – Saoirse Ronan’s Scottish is no more inaccurate than modern French might be.
Rourke has also taken liberties in the casting department, though this is possibly a correction of previous period drama’s omissions. In a move that brings to mind Rourke’s theatre roots (where colour-blind casting is common), she has cast several BAME actors as historical figures who were (to our knowledge) white: Puerto Rican Ismael Cruz Cordova plays the Italian David Rizzio, and Izuka Hoyle makes her film debut as Mary Seton. The cast also includes Gemma Chan and Adrian Lester. Rourke is adamant that this choice more accurately reflects Tudor courts than all-white ensembles, stating that she ‘cannot and will not direct an all-white period drama’ as ‘[t]here were people of colour in Tudor England’. Regardless of the historical figures’ ethnicities, it is not a choice that detracts from the film’s storytelling and quality in any way – and in today’s film industry such diversity should in no way be discouraged.
Rourke’s and Westmoreland’s pictures are not the only historical retellings currently in cinemas. The Favourite is an excellent example of altered history providing a fresh, gripping, and gutsy take on real events. Yorgos Lanthimos takes Queen Anne’s court as a starting point and creates a twisted, hilarious character study focusing on three savvy women using heads and hearts to gain power. Ribald language and anachronistic costuming complete the feeling of modernity and freshness, making the well-documented historical events feel surprising and relevant.
In terms of historical accuracy, it appears no more or less truthful than Rourke’s picture. Unlike Mary and Elizabeth, however, Anne’s era and familiars benefit from relative obscurity, so previous artistic versions do not overly colour viewers’ take on the events. Ultimately, however, the ‘accuracy’ should not matter: as with any film regardless of subject, the ability of the plot and characters to engage and connect with audiences should measure its success. As Lanthimos’s historical advisor Hannah Greig states:
Accuracy (as generally defined by our clunky accuracy-o-meters that make us think it is measurable) was never the goal in The Favourite. The film does not look like your conventional period drama. And coming from Lanthimos, we would all be hugely disappointed if it did.
Instead, The Favourite joins the pantheon of films embracing and flaunting anachronisms and overt incorrectness while earning the hearts of audiences and critics. Others of this ilk include Marie Antoinette and Shakespeare in Love, which both succeed through a knowing silliness and subversion of reality (though the former’s choices satirise and commentate on history while the latter remains pure escapism).
With these examples in mind, historical accuracy is not a requirement for a strong, successful film. Historical revisions for the sake of plot, pacing, and coherence are easily forgiven, as are those that allow marginalised creators and performers to embody and retell familiar narratives. In some cases, however, such changes can significantly weaken a film. Historical revisions that alter authorship, authority, and motivation can be more questionable and troubling – especially if those changes benefit conventional (read: patriarchal and/or heteronormative) narratives. The Greatest Showman is grand fun, but perhaps it would have been stronger had it been about a fictional circus master instead of erasing P.T. Barnum’s worker exploitation.
Bohemian Rhapsody is a minefield in this regard. Freddie Mercury was not the first Queen member to produce a solo album, and Queen’s involvement in Live Aid had nothing to do with Mercury’s AIDS diagnosis (indeed the former preceded the latter by two years). While such changes create a conventional narrative structure, the quasi-moralisation on Mercury’s sexuality, lifestyle, and professional choices as well as the maudlin retconning of his illness leaves a bad aftertaste and kill any nuance. Additionally, Green Book is proving a textbook example of How Not to Revise History. The screenwriter’s racist/Islamophobic leanings and director’s impropriety aside, claiming that Dr Don Shirley was estranged from his family – possibly to make the white protagonist more sympathetic – is far more problematic than inventing an in-person meeting to dramatise months of letters.
Even Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette’s story has not escaped such revisions, albeit on a much smaller and less damning scale. In Westmoreland’s film, her husband Willy orchestrates the publicity for Colette’s infamous ‘Reve d’Egypte’ act at the Moulin Rouge, where she kissed her lover Mathilde ‘Missy’ de Morny on stage and sparked a homophobic riot. In reality, Willy and Colette separated the year before this performance; by this time Colette lived with Missy and – seeing none of Willy’s money from her Claudine novels – supported herself solely though cabaret.
In a film with marketing and a central message built around the idea of historical authorship and artistic independence, it feels tone deaf to colour a moment of subversive cabaret with a straight man’s quest for press. This edit may make sense in terms of biopic conventions and only be a detriment to viewers familiar with the real figures and timelines. However, in a story that shows Colette’s hand writing her history, proving her authorship of the Claudine novels, and cementing herself as one of France’s great literary figures, it feels a weak choice.
Seen through these examples, historical accuracy in film seems only as important as the stories that are being retold: if the new narrative respects its subjects without idolisation, disrespect, or moralisations, it is free to take whatever liberties required. History has told many stories about Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I, and it remains to be seen if Rourke’s vision allows her characters to capture viewers’ hearts and imaginations while celebrating the real-life inspirations. In the context of cinema – period piece or otherwise – this is the only measure Mary Queen of Scots should be judged on.