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“Mary Queen of Scots” – More present-day, less history


Saoirse Ronan born in New York City, and raised in Ireland, plays teenage Catholic widow Mary Stuart, forced out of Scotland and aspires the English throne. (4K frame shots courtesy of Universal Studios Home Entertainment)


4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray and Digital copy; 2018; R for some violence and sexuality; streaming Amazon Video/Prime, FandangoNOW (4K), Google Play (4K), iTunes (4K), Vudu (4K), YouTube

BEST EXTRA: Commentary with Director Josie Rourke and Composer Max Richter

THOSE who enjoy films with historical leanings may want to take a look at Josie Rourke’s cinematic debut, “Mary Queen of Scots.” The word “may” should not be ignored. It contains modern touches in addition to well-meaning, but rather forced attempts at inclusivity and feminism. Viewers will find it similar to Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette,” and “The Favourite,” Yorgos Lanthimos’ multi-Oscar nominated film.

Rourke, still the director of the celebrated West End theatre company in London, gives us Saoirse Ronan (“Brooklyn,” “Lady Bird”) as the teenage Catholic widow Mary Stuart, forced out of Scotland and aspiring to the English throne. Elizabeth, Mary’s Protestant cousin who jealously occupies it, is played by Margot Robbie (“I, Tonya”). Despite that historically famous rivalry, the worst of the film’s villains are the majority of the men surrounding both queens, who never stop plotting and contriving to control (or destroy) the women’s lives.

The screenplay is by Netflix phenom Beau Willimon (“House of Cards”). It begins with Mary’s execution, flashing back to her arrival in England. Willimon and Rourke’s film, which often slows to a crawl, bounces from documented history to pure confabulation. Perhaps in an effort to make Mary seem relevant to a young generation, she wears some very hip little gold hoops in one ear, and a single drop earring in the other, but sports an outlandish, historically correct 16th-century hairdo.

Mary, Queen of Scots arrives in Scotland in 1561.

Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots and her half-brother, the Earl of Moray (James McArdle).

The two queens never actually met each other, but the film invents a climactic face-to-face encounter, which plays as pure tearjerking melodrama. Add to that the fact that, although 25 years are meant to have passed during the course of the film, Mary (Ronan) never shows the slightest sign of aging, while poor Elizabeth’s face evolves into a scary mask. Oh well. The cinematography is lush and painterly, costumes and makeup are grand (and Oscar-nominated), and Ronan, Robbie, David Tennant, Guy Pearce, Jack Lowden, James McArdle, et. al., do their best with the script. Plus, according to Ronan in one of the featurette interviews, they had quite a jolly time doing it.


From the opening, the 4K imagery (2.39:1 aspect ratio) from British cinematographer John Mathieson (“Logan,” “Gladiator”) is striking. He captures the English and Scottish coasts, and medieval countryside in unpredictable weather using vintage 65mm lens from the 1970s mounted on super high resolution 8K Panavision digital cameras. Diffused light throughout mist and fog adds to the visual style, while castle interiors are mostly lit by roaring fires and candles, providing an atmospheric glow. Strong shafts of window light fill other scenes, leading to contrasting deep, dark shadows with plenty of detail from the expansive HDR10 and Dolby Vision contrast toning.

Sharpness is a major bump in clarity over the HD versions; a product of a true 4K master from its 8K source, evident from facial closes ups of Mary and Elizabeth, plus sweeping distant shots of the barren landscapes. Most of the color is full of earth tones, blacks, and grays, except when the characters are near a fireplace. Facial toning is natural and balanced, even when Queen Elizabeth coats her face in a heavy white makeup to cover smallpox scars. It makes a stark contrast against her bold red wing.

Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie) and her court of ladies-in-waiting.

Queen Elizabeth I

Elizabeth in her castle, with members of her court.

The Scots Protestant firebrand, John Knox (David Tennant).


The 4K (disc & streaming) and Blu-ray include the all-encompassing Dolby Atmos eight-channel soundtrack, pushing the abundant echo effects from the castles into the room. Much of British composer Max Richter’s classic score is full of traditional period cues. It was recorded with a 110-piece orchestra, and includes choral singing and a Celtic harp. The dialogue is front and center as expected. Overall, this is a quiet and reserved soundtrack.


Include three brief featurettes: “An Epic Confrontation,” deals with the decision to have the two monarchs meet, with input from Ronan, Robbie, and Rourke, among others; “Tudor Feminism,” in which actors, producers, and writers discuss the “sisterhood” between Mary and Elizabeth; and “Something About Marys,” where actresses playing various characters named Mary share how much fun they had on and off set, calling themselves the “Renaissance Spice Girls.”

The feature commentary contains much about the score, thanks to Richter, who says he “pulled apart Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” and added a “contemporary angle.” “I tried to speak to the present,” he says adding that he often used period music, such as works by Thomas Tallis, “to help with place and time.”

Rourke says she was inspired by the films of Derek Jarman. She praises David Tennant’s performance as the fiery Scots cleric John Knox, and notes that Tennant, himself, is the son of a Scots minister. When discussing makeup and costumes, Rourke says it took Robbie three hours to prepare for the camera as Elizabeth. A “fun fact,” Rourke adds, is that, in order to give the women’s skirts plenty of volume, they stuffed duvets from Ikea beneath them.

— Peggy Earle and Bill Kelley III, High-Def Watch producer

Elizabeth and her lover, Robert Dudley (Joe Alwyn).

The 4K imagery is spectacular with the rugged Scottish landscape.

Elizabeth reveals her smallpox-afflicted face to Dudley.

Elizabeth meets with her advisors.

Mary and her husband, Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden).


Mary's ladies-in-waiting pray for the conception of her child.

Mary weeps for her musician and private secretary David Rizzio (Ismael Cruz Cordova), who was murdered at the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh by a group of Protestant lords including the Queen's husband, Lord Darnley.

Mary and her ladies-in-waiting.

Mary gives birth to the baby who grows to be King James I of England, Scotland and Ireland.

The Battle of Langside, in which the Scots Protestants defeated Mary's army.

Director Josie Rourke and screenwriter Beau Willimon invented a climactic face-to-face encounter between the two queens.





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