Too Many Old Queens: Fact VS Fiction
How do you make the the great stories of history relevant for a modern audience?
It’s a question vexing many a writer and filmmaker. A cycle of historical films occurred some 40 years ago, with the huge success of the TV series ‘I, Claudius’ with Derek Jacobi, ‘The Six Wives of Henry VIII’, starring Keith Michell, ‘Elizabeth R’ with Glenda Jackson and ‘Mary, Queen of Scots’ with Vanessa Redgrave and Jackson.
History on film was usually played straight – big castles, authentic costumes, long speeches – but angry new revisions had changed the playing field. ‘How I Won The War’ and ‘Oh What A Lovely War’ presented WWI as absurdist satire, and ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ (preferable to the Errol Flynn travesty) stripped away heroics to reveal the incompetence of generals. It was the first time someone had dumped traditional schoolbooks to get to the previously-censored truth, and it came as a shock – especially as in my school you were likely to open your history book and find it had been taken out by boys in the 19th century.
But in the fake-news year of 2019, how are we to present the past so that it chimes with a younger, more cynical audience who already expect incompetence and lies? One way is to ignore factual accuracy and go for a kind of general assonance, as the TV show ‘Taboo’ did. The Tom Hardy starrer about the East India Company was shamelessly lurid and made no attempt to reproduce period language, but injected earth and salt into modern speech with impressive results. It felt right.
Another way is to provide a modern parallel through which we can see echoes of our own time. The political machinations of Hilary Mantel’s ‘Wolf Hall’ can be understood in terms of present day government – although to find a parallel to Trump we’d have to go back to Caligula.
But in the process of making drama, inconvenient facts sometimes have to be ignored. The book ‘Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies’ points out that key truths were removed from Peter Weir’s film ‘Gallipoli’, which has a British general refusing to call off the attack when in fact it was an Australian officer who made the decision. And by failing to explain the purpose of the battle, its context or even location, it pushes its message (the futility of the Great War) at the expense of accuracy. Let’s not even go to Mel Gibson’s ‘Braveheart’, a travesty on every level.
Much has been made of the historical inaccuracy of ‘The Favourite’, which chronicles Queen Anne’s later years. The changes are indeed huge but the tone is correct. Peter Ackroyd writes that she was ‘cautious by temperament, never wholly trusting her own judgement or those of others,’ quoting Jonathan Swift’s observation that ‘there was not, perhaps in all England, a person who understood more artfully to disguise her passions.’ It’s this key that’s used to unlock her story, and putting her at the centre of a lesbian love triangle is simply a way of ramping up the idea of court favouritism and taking it to a logical conclusion.
At the other end of the spectrum, the remake of ‘Mary, Queen of Scots’ with Saoirse Ronan is more awkwardly revisionist, filtering the power struggle between Elizabeth R and Mary through the filter of male manipulation and manufacturing a meeting between the two queens that never happened (as its earlier version did). More damagingly, it fails to provide a reason why we should care. Where ‘The Favourite’ provides a relatable heroine of sorts in Emma Stone, ‘Mary’ expects us to follow the royal retinues as they strut about in London and Holyrood House, arguing ways through their power plays.
It tries to make this relevant by dropping in anachronisms, playing to the ‘woke’ demographic it seeks to capture and including a trans character who is accepted without question. In ‘The Favourite’ there’s a strangeness that makes the past another country. In ‘Mary’ there’s doubt that we’re in the past at all. We’re possible at the Donmar, from whence the director hails, playing to a Guardianista audience. According to critic Nicholas Barber, ‘Even Ronan can’t save over-written dialogue that includes such tongue-twisters as, “If God wills Mary to marry, Mary will marry only whom Mary wills to marry.”
Possibly the greatest portrayal of Elizabeth I on screen comes from Quentin Crisp in delightful ‘Orlando’. The Naked Civil Servant gives the venerable queen a sinister, supernatural stateliness that the others miss. So, historical veracity or tonal assonance? You decide.