LIKE most ordinary mortals, I’ve only seen a trailer for Mary Queen of Scots, which opens at cinemas this weekend. Directed by Josie Rourke, it stars Irish actor Saoirse Ronan as a strongly-accented Mary. Important though Mary’s part is, Ronan faces stiff competition from a magnificent wardrobe of furs, which threatens to steal the limelight. As does a cadre of granite-faced, black-clad, tooled-up noblemen, who stand before her as if straddling a manhole or keeping balance on the deck of a ship.

Clearly, this reprise of the familiar story is indebted to Game of Thrones. But what a pity that title has been taken. Those three little words perfectly sum up the drama of Mary Stuart’s ill-omened life, from the day of her birth, to her execution. Rourke, like countless historians, novelists and filmmakers before her, shapes the story as a duel between the Scottish queen and her implacable English “sister” Queen Elizabeth. As the years pass and the Virgin Queen’s face becomes a gargoyle of white paint and crimson lipstick – Mary remaining a fresh-faced beauty – it’s not hard to see where the director’s loyalties lie.

So far, so predictable. As is the scene where the monarchs meet, an encounter which in real life Elizabeth studiously avoided. Even so, in these days of Angela Merkel, Nicola Sturgeon, Theresa May, and their ilk, Mary and Elizabeth’s struggle to win and hold respect and allegiance as rulers amid a rabble of scornful males carries an eerie echo in our own times.

Fascination with Mary, of course, has nothing to do with her relevance. Her allure is timeless. Save for Jesus of Nazareth and Shakespeare, there cannot be many about whom more films have been made or books written. And trust me, said she putting her hand up, others are in the pipeline.

I’ve sometimes wondered, though, what Scotland would have been like if Mary had stayed in France, and refused to return as queen. The Dauphin, who became King of France the year after they married, lasted only a few months as Francis II before dying. Mary was only 18. But if he had been instead a robust young man who went on to enjoy a long reign over one of Europe’s pre-eminent nations, what then for Scotland?

Read more: Should Mary be played by a Scots actress?

In those circumstances, it would surely have been unthinkable for Mary to return alone to her native land, to carry out her duties. She might have asked Francis, King Consort of Scotland, to accompany her home every now and then, to remind folk who she was. But because he could not have left his court except briefly and she, as mother of his children, could not have been absent from his side for long either, it would have been no more than a gesture.

So how would events have unfolded if we had continued to be ruled in absentia by a Regent, and Mary had remained in the beautiful palace of Fontainebleau in the Isle de France? Even if she had been widowed, and remarried, she would have had no compelling reason to choose Lord Darnley, and her child would not have been James VI. If nothing else, a different heir allows for the possibility that a less paranoid individual might not have lit the fuse of pernicious witchhunts that devastated the country. But while that danger might have been averted, he or she might, unlike James, have held to their mother’s Catholic beliefs. In that case, it would have been bloody.

Alternative history is the stuff of sleepless nights. Untie a single factual knot, and a vast number of possibilities spills out before you like marbles loosed from their net. It’s not an intellectual game I often indulge in, but in the case of Mary, it’s hard to resist. After all, she has made an indelible impression on the way we see ourselves, often without us being aware. Thoughtlessly, even complacently, we take her contribution absolutely for granted. Yet things might so easily have gone in another direction completely.

Mary’s poor judgment and self-deceit, not to mention her likely treachery and collusion in murder, continue to be felt today. Without her unwise use of power, engrained suspicion of women’s ability to hold high office might have faded sooner. Between Mary’s missteps and her son’s hysteria over witches, women’s reputation was blackened indelibly for centuries. Whether it was in the husbands she chose, the friends and political allegiances she made, or the panicked and ill thought- out decisions about her own best interests and those of her people, she was anything but a good role model for modern women. She also played on her feminine charms, even though she was as intelligent and smart as the men around her, and often a great deal more so.

Above all, she cemented the country’s reputation as a romantic but backward and violent place. On one hand, she left a legacy of glamour, wit and courage. On the other, she has helped us remain mired in ignorant prejudice. Thanks to her tragic charisma, even now many of us prefer – as does this latest film – to sensationalise the facts, rather than simply face them.