Mary Queen of Scots
Universal // R // $34.98 // February 26, 2019
Review by William Harrison | posted March 26, 2019
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Mary, Queen of Scots and Queen Elizabeth I of England never actually met in person, but Director Josie Rourke takes more than a few liberties with history in his handsome, historically lax Mary Queen of Scots. Saoirse Ronan stars as nineteen-year-old Catholic Mary and Margot Robbie portrays Protestant Queen Elizabeth; royals at odds due to circumstances beyond their control in the second half of the sixteenth century. Instead of slavish historical accuracy, Rourke instead infuses Mary Queen of Scots with liberal ideals and modern touches, painting Mary as an advocate for social progression. A history lesson this is not, but the strong performances from the leads, intricate sets and gorgeous costumes make Mary Queen of Scots a worthy rental.

An infant Mary Stuart is sent to Catholic France, where she later marries Francis II, who is in line for the throne. Francis dies three years later, and the widowed Mary returns to Protestant Scotland to claim the throne. Next door in England, childless and unmarried Elizabeth fears Mary's lineage gives Mary legitimate entitlement to Elizabeth's own throne, and a struggle for power begins. With English Catholics already in Mary's corner, Elizabeth attempts to undermine her sovereignty by arranging a marriage between Elizabeth and Robert Dudley (Joe Alwyn), whom she secretly loves. Neither Dudley nor Mary accepts the offer until Elizabeth contracts smallpox. Mary then appears to agree to move forward with the marriage if she is named Elizabeth's heir apparent, but simultaneously grows fond of Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden), also sent to Scotland by Elizabeth. With each status message from Scotland, Elizabeth becomes more furious and more wary that her power is slipping.

There is a lot to chew on in Mary Queen of Scots, and I wish the film had gone full pulp melodrama and just become a good old fashioned cat fight between Mary and Elizabeth. It threatens to do just that at some points, and you could be forgiven for thinking it is a modern drama with added costumes. The women did correspond in writing but never met in person, so the late-game countryside meeting between the parties is purely fictional. What is interesting, and what has been explored more deeply in other sources, is how Mary and Elizabeth used the men around them to wage social and political warfare, which was quite progressive for 1561. All the backbiting and posturing is occasionally overwhelming, and Mary Queen of Scots plays its Elizabeth as resigned to disappointment while Mary gets the most gold stars on her ascent-to-power report card.

Ronan and Robbie give good performances, but, despite Robbie's prominent position in the film's advertising, Ronan gets the bulk of the screen time. The film remains relatively involving for 125 minutes, though some sections feel a bit trivial, as if the filmmakers are more concerned with featuring the lavish costumes and sets than moving the narrative forward. Those sets and costumes are very impressive, and costume designer Alexandra Byrne received an Academy Award nomination for her work here. The make-up work by Jenny Shircore is also impressive, and the gorgeous Robbie nearly disappears under her smallpox scars, white face powder and wigs. As a history lesson, Mary Queen of Scots is delinquent; it plays fast and loose with the facts while simultaneously requiring viewers to have some prior knowledge of the goings-on to avoid getting lost in the shuffle. As a period drama, the movie is handsomely shot and well acted, and is at least worthy of renting.



The 2.39:1/1080p/AVC-encoded image is fantastic, and gives plenty of opportunities to marvel at the intricate costumes. Fine-object detail is excellent, and wide shots are crisp and clean. Outdoor landscapes stretch for miles without a hint of compression noise, and the interiors of castle corridors are rich in detail and texture. Colors are occasionally bold and nicely saturated, blacks are inky and shadow detail is abundant. Contrast is good, skin tones are precise if slightly period-pasty, and I noticed no edge halos.


The Dolby Atmos soundtrack, which I sampled as a 7.1 Dolby TrueHD mix, is expansive and immersive, and offers plenty of interactive elements for a dialogue-heavy drama. Ambient noise, like weather and livestock clamor, wafts through the surrounds, dialogue is crystal clear from all channels, and the score is richly deployed. Element spacing is precise, and I noticed no distortion. French and Spanish surround dubs are available, as are English SDH, French and Spanish subtitles.


This single-disc release includes an HD digital copy. The disc is packed in a standard case that is wrapped in a slipcover that replicates the striking key artwork. Extras include EPK featurettes An Epic Confrontation (3:58/HD), Something about the Marys (2:24/HD); and Tudor Feminism (3:35/HD), which offer very little of substance, and an Audio Commentary by Director Josie Rourke and Composter Max Richter.


An entertaining period drama and character study that strays from the annals of history, Mary Queen of Scots benefits from strong performances and good production values. Universal's Blu-ray features good picture and sound and a few extras. Rent It.

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