Review: 'Mary, Queen of Scots' is By and About Strong Women Who Deserve Better


Recently nabbing two Oscar nomination for Best Costume Design and Best Makeup & Hairstyling, Mary Queen of Scots is a showcase of the relationship between two of Europe’s most influential matriarchs: Mary Stuart and Queen Elizabeth I. Following her vast career in directing theater, Josie Rourke makes her feature film debut with this political costume drama that sees Stuart (Saoirse Ronan) attempting to assert her legitimacy to the throne over her younger cousin Elizabeth (Margot Robbie). Rourke’s theatrical prowess is evident in her staging and use of dialog, where the former results in scenes that are grand and well choreographed while the later can generate overstuffed exposition. Covering 27 years of history, the film often finds itself in the reeds when it dives into conversations about Catholics at war Protestants and the interwoven bloodlines of monarchs, but nestled between the political drama are terrific performances

Ronan is a bold and enthralling Mary, who was the firebrand that threatened to overthrow England’s religious and diplomatic sovereignty. She has clearly done her due diligence on the character, capturing her fierce ambition down to her Scottish brogue. Ronan is equally matched by the talented Robbie. Her Elizabeth is the other side of the coin: a woman trapped and puppeteered by her council and suffering from chronic pain and illness. She is obsessed with the youthful spirit of Mary that she can never have for herself, with the entire film reaching its climax when the two finally meet face to face.  

Though the film’s plot is tough to boil down and strays from historical accuracy at times, it carries a feminist message thanks to Josie Rourke. The production would have certainly lost the majority of nuance had it been done under a male director. It never shies away from undermining the misogyny both queens faced, even from within their own courts. It attempts to explain how men will incite sabotage and destabilize their own standing for the sake of dethroning a matriarch. These gender dynamics find contemporary relevancy still today, making MQOS a more engaging piece than dramas like Netflix’s Outlaw King which has no anchor in the current social landscape (but I still love you, Florence Pugh). Rourke also takes risks with the taboo by actually depicting menstrual blood which is usually erased from womanhood by the cinema for being ‘unclean’ or ‘unpleasant’. Her characters bear the weight of expectations to birth heirs to the throne; their value based on reproduction instead of individuality. The film also should be commended for refusing to erase its queer history, no matter how dark that may play out.


Despite some of its narrative bogs, the film truly deserves its Oscar nominations. As Costume Design is the only gender integrated category frequently dominated by women (which is something worth unpacking in its own right), MQOS pays special attention to each the construction of each garment, how it appears on screen, and how it helps define the individual wearing it. The prestigious and award-winning costume designer Alexandra Byrne was a huge get for the production given her prodigious body of work, as she brought a great deal of expertise and consideration to the work.

Jenny Shircore is the other hopeful nominee, responsible for makeup and hairstyling that could give the looks from Game of Thrones a run for their money. Unfortunately, in recent times with dreary pictures like Darkest Hour and Vice, the Academy seems to think the pinnacle of Makeup is old-age and weight-changing prosthetics on men. They forget makeup has long been entrenched in the politics of femininity, and can carry a great load of significance in storytelling. Shircore wasn’t interested in glamorizing or idealizing the beauty standards for women of the era as Elizabeth’s iconic white caked face and red hair were a ruse, her actual skin ravaged by smallpox and the toxic chemicals of the cosmetics themselves. One glance at Robbie and you understand how her appearance is a part of the character’s struggle to survive. It’s essential to understanding who she is, and how she exists in relationship to Mary. Come February 24th, I’ll have my fingers crossed that efforts put forth by the creative teams are recognized for their significance.

In the end, the film’s parts are greater than the whole. It features Max Richter’s score, a beautiful and period-appropriate composition drawing inspiration from Mendelssohn’s Reformation Symphony. It has wonderful performances, thoughtful design, and a feminist message not often seen in period pieces. But something just doesn’t quite fit these elements together into a watchable package. The main issue is the dense contextual dialogue explanations and ideologies at play that flood the story. It’s a decent screen debut for Rourke that has its faults, but I hope that the tepid critical and box office response to this film doesn’t deter her from future directorial prospects.