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Mary Queen of Scots – Woke Movie of the Year

This article was published on the Australian Spectator website this weekend…its my review of Mary Queen of Scots – you can get the original here 

Screenshot 2019-02-03 at 16.31.30

And the Oscar for most Woke Period Drama goes to… Mary Queen of Scots (although The Favourite ran it a close second).

The woke checklist

Women as the heroines (but still victims oppressed by the patriarchal society) – check.

Men dressed in black as misogynistic rulers of the patriarchy – check.

A suitably racially diverse court – check.

Religious tolerance – check.

Promoting gender fluidity – check.

White middle class liberal feminist dialogue – check.

Explicit sex scenes – check.

This film has it all. All the boxes are ticked. All that is missing are the wind turbines on the Scottish mountains proving that climate change awareness is centuries old.

Which is a shame – because as a Scot with more than a passing interest in the history of my own country, I was looking forward to this latest cinematic telling of the story of one of our most fascinating characters, Queen Mary and her English cousin, Elizabeth.

Lets begin with the positives. The scenery was great (this is after all Scotland). The acting is also good – especially Saoirse Ronan as Mary and Margot Robbie as Elizabeth.   But, unless you want to see a sixteenth century version of The Handmaid’s Tale, Mary Queen of Scots has little else going for it.

Hysterical history

After the opening scene the film descends into the kind of historical farce that makes Mel Gibson’s Braveheart seem like a documentary. It is a dramatic reinterpretation of John Guy’s dramatic reinterpretation of the story of Mary (Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart). As such it is, to put it mildly, somewhat historically inaccurate.

The battles scenes are pathetically re-enacted – coming across more like a couple of small street gangs having a go, than major battles. In Josie Rourke’s (the director) version of sixteenth century Scotland there are only castles, rivers and mountains. We see no villages, no towns and no cities.

Some are more equal than others

It’s strange that in a film supposedly signalling the virtues of equality there are almost no ordinary people (apart from a few crazy eyed religious zealots listening to John Knox and some Gaelic speaking Highlanders being charmed by their French Queen). The question that also crosses my mind is why in this age of equality, are modern liberals celebrating hereditary monarchy – the ultimate in birth privilege?

But never fear – we know this film is for equality because the courts of both Mary and Elizabeth are turned into racially diverse ones – despite the fact that in a population of some five million in England and Scotland in the sixteenth century there are only records of 360 people of African origin.

It seems strange that at a time when liberals are concerned about a non-transgender person playing a transgender one, they have no qualms about Lord Randolph, Elizabeth’s ambassador to Scotland, being portrayed as an African. Or Queen Elizabeth, despite her racist views, having an Asian lady in waiting. I guess the quotas had to be filled. But if that’s the case I want to protest that it did not go far enough. If an African-American actress had played Mary then we would finally have arrived at the ultimate Hollywood version of equality!

Down with the patriarchy

According to one review the differences between Mary and Elizabeth are “exploited by the patriarchal system which surrounds them”. The same review went on to say that all good period dramas reflect the present – “This story of two independent, complex women challenged at every step by the men surrounding them feels very contemporary and strikingly relevant today”.

But that’s the problem.   I want to see a film about Mary Queen of Scots, the sixteenth century and all the complexities involved. I don’t want to see, as another reviewer put it, “a woke queen, spouting proto-feminist dialogue, keeping a racially diverse court, embracing all religions and her courtiers’ gender fluidity.”

1780229267If you want to know about Mary Queen of Scots you should read Antonia Fraser’s biography of the same title. On the other hand if you want to know about contemporary society then this film is as good a guide as any.

Some of the dialogue is cringeworthily bad.

“You have not betrayed your nature” Mary tells David Rizzio after catching him in bed with her new husband, Lord Darnley. When Rizzio dresses up as a woman she tells him. “Be whoever you wish with us, you make for a lovely sister”.

“I shall be a man” declares Elizabeth – as she prepares to incite civil war in Scotland – something of course which no woman would do.

“How cruel men are!”

“Sisters do not betray sisters”

“I know that your heart has more within you than the men that counsel you”.

Religious bigotry

While Mary Queen of Scots is spot on if you buy into the whole rewrite of history as a patriarchal narrative, when it comes to religion it is shallow and superficial in its understanding. There is no exploration of Mary’s deep Catholic faith – and the caricature of John Knox’s Presbyterianism is so bad that I feel if David Tennant had played his most famous character – Dr Who – instead of Knox it would have been more realistic! In its ignorance and virtue signalling the irony is that this is a film which promotes religious bigotry and intolerance – all in the name of tolerance.

As a Scot this film depressed me. I wanted to scream out that we are not as the film portrays. And then the thought struck me – what if we are? This is not a film that reflects Scotland in the sixteenth century but it is a film that reflects the regression of Western culture today – silly, superficial and shallow.

God have mercy on us.

Illustration: Focus Features/Working Title Films/Perfect World Pictures/Universal Pictures.

Saturday Review 3 – Endeavour; Mary Queen of Scots; John Owen; Brendan O’Neill Podcast; The Bothy Band; Berties

My article on Gillette was also published in a different form in the Speccie…

Also discussed on last weeks Quantum Podcast –  Quantum 27 – Consent; Salmond; Drugs; Hate Crime; Abortion; Christian Schools; Mary Queen of Scots




  1. Sadly, people getting their history from the movies is playing out (rather literally!) in all the gung-ho have-at-them rhetoric currently invoking World War Two. The English front pages are, viewed en masse in the shop display, truly terrifying. Only a week or so back I felt obliged to remind one “…and one World Cup” ranter that it’s not all about riding tanks into Berlin.
    (I’m sure you have similar records for your own locality, but here is the one for my nearest large town where that belligerent poster – almost certainly, from his picture, too old to wear a uniform himself) lives. At least one of my own relatives further into London had her whole street instantly wiped off the map by a “land mine”, never mind jibes about prosecco shortages. )
    My father didn’t bother watching modern “realistic” movies full of gore and torture – he’d seen enough real corpses hanging out of bombed buildings as a young child. It’s now, when those memories are passing, and people are used to extreme violence as entertainment, that people enjoy an hour or so of pain-free gaming and dream of giving Those (insert epithet of choice) “a good kicking”.
    Whatever the rights and wrongs of Brexit itself, this ignorant spoiling for a fight (eerily reminiscent of the complacent run-up to World War One after the Napoleonic and Crimean veterans had passed) cannot be celebrated.
    This is how it was done in an earlier age still: I have repeated Walpole’s famous quote, which I learned at school, many times of late. It happens to be Spain that was the target then, but it’s infinitely transferable to any enemy of choice. And yet another local connection, as several generations of the splendidly-named seafaring Haddock family, including Admiral Nicholas, are buried in St Clement’s Leigh-on-Sea.

    1. I totally agree. It’s no coincidence that society now views war so lightly just as the generation to fight in ww2 become very elderly or have passed.

  2. I think that you are right to say that contemporary social interests are highlighted in historical films, such as this.

    I think if this film had been made five years ago then Rizzios sexuality and effeminacy would have been downplayed or entirely edited out-so isn’t it a good thing that more accurate history is now being told?!

    I’m not so sure about Elizabeth ascribing herself male characteristics as being particular to our age as this is very much part of how she is remembered.

    I think it’s a bit unfair to complain the film being too tolerant of difference, but then also condemn it for bigotry!

    The issue with black actors playing white roles etc is all to do with privilege. It’s less socially acceptable for someone with privileged characteristics to play someone without than vice versa, in part because there are lots of good roles for straight white men in Hollywood and very few for black lesbians. I’m not necessarily endorsing this situation and I can see why you see it as hypocrisy. I’m just trying to explain it.

    Robbie is not English and Ronan is not Scottish, but nobody complains about this.

    None of the characters would have spoken in contemporary English.

    Knox did indeed see women in leadership as evil

    1. Thanks Peter – your post is further evidence of what I was trying to say – post-modern eyes mean that we can see whatever we want to see. Just a few flaws in what you say.

      5 years ago Rizzio’s sexuality and effeminacy would have been played up as well (although it is questionable if it existed…and playing him as some kind of camp pathetic figure is not really helpful to anyone – nor accurate!).

      In the film Elizabeth ascribes herself as a woman – but says that to use violence and political intrigue she has to be a man. Is that itself not sexist stereotyping.

      I didn’t complain that the film was too tolerant of difference – precisely the opposite.

      I see you buy into the privilege narrative. Totally false. This discrimination on the basis of colour in order to combat racism is itself racist. I am sure that an American can play and Australian, or a Scot an English person – but could/should a white Polish person play Martin Luther King on the grounds that Polish people don’t get a lot of major roles in films?!

      1. I think we would have to agree to disagree on whether Rizzios sexuality would have featured in a film made five years ago.

        I agree that it is stereotyping to say men are violent and women are not. However this does seem to be how Elizabeth thought.

        A film like this will feature a number of voices all merged and overlapping. It may well be that the writer and director have modern thoughts around gender stereotyping, but their historical subjects do not. The result will be a merging of modern values with historical ones.

        As I said I didn’t necessarily agree with the current situation in terms of what type of actor can play what type of character. As I said (maybe you didn’t see that bit?) I can see it from both sides. For example, if disabled actors are struggling to find work because there aren’t many suitable roles and then a major role of a disabled person is given to someone who isn’t disabled, not because they are the better actor, but just because disabled actors were never considered. Or another example, that disabled kids do not see themselves reflected in society because everyone with important jobs or celebrity jobs is not disabled. You can switch out disablity for any other characteristic.

        You can say this is “totally false”, but I have seen it happen in my workplace! People with under privileged characteristics are less likely to get promoted. I know this in part because I have never had any problem getting promoted! It’s not because the bosses are racist, sexist or whatever, but because they connect best with people who look and sound like they do.

  3. This film has it all. All the boxes are ticked. All that is missing are the wind turbines on the Scottish mountains proving that climate change awareness is centuries old.

    So you actually do have a sense of humour.

  4. I’m from Poland. The Scottish history – especially life of Queen Mary always fascinated me, My first book which I have started reading in English was Mary Queen of Scots written by Antonia Fraser.I saw last month the new film about Queen Mary in cinema and I was very disappointed, finished watch this film after 20 minutes.

  5. It’s hard to argue with someone based on movie preferences but your main complaint seems to be that it is not historically accurate. Which is fair enough, it’s hard to argue that point for this or any other historical movie. The purpose of these movies is to entertain and to make money and in that sense for me it did both, I was entertained in exchange for £13.

    I go back to my point from the other post though. Movies like Braveheart and Gladiator, though significantly historically inaccurate, we’re used by early 2000’s Christians as examples of Christian masculinity. Which is fine but likely does not reflect the real life William Wallace or Maximus (if one existed). I therefore don’t think it’s unreasonable that Mary was co-opted by feminism.

    1. Thats not my main complaint. My complaint is creating fake history in order to promote current ideologies. And if any CHristians used Gladiator to promote ‘Christian masculinity’ they are as bad as those who use Mary Queen of Scots to promote 21st Century woke feminism!

      1. But all historical movies, especially those based on events centuries ago, do that to a certain extent. It’s extremely unlikely that your average 13th century Scottish soldier under Wallace would have been thinking of freedom and nationalism as it was portrayed.

        We don’t have an extensive verbatim record of what Mary and Elizabeth said and therefore for a movie it must be created and anytime anything like that is created for the purpose of entertainment, it is bound to let the biases of the author creep in. If you want the nuances and complexities of 16th century Scotland, then I think you’re after a documentary, I’m not sure it makes for an entertaining movie for the masses (though I would love a movie on how Scotland went from a poor backwater country on the edge of Europe to the most literate and educated in Europe largely because of the influence of John Knox).

      2. Not looking for a documentary – just looking for a degree of accuracy and not just making up history in order to suit current agendas….

      3. That Elizabeth and Mary never met – and that this was not an accident, but deliberate policy – is something “entertainment” writers, whether of books, plays, operas or movies, simply can’t cope with, or incorporate in an original manner to their preferred “story”, with its opportunity for a freely-invented dialogue. I recall being revolted at the London Dungeon, not by the execution scene of Elizabeth’s mother (only to be expected) but by the Oprah-style speech the animated exhibit delivered on the scaffold, when in fact we DO have Anne Boleyn’s actual words – which one can imagine all sorts of satiric undertones into – from a contemporary chronicler.
        But then, everyone who’s ever “been in the papers” knows how truth is warped into the shape of a saleable “story” in one or other established mythic form they know will sell – there’s even a site collecting the “tropes” writers use to appeal to various established audience sectors – It’s tempting to think that only reports and words that *don’t* make a “good story” – and Anne Boleyn’s scaffold speech, whatever one chooses to read into it, certainly falls short of the epic – are likely to be genuine.
        Another instance where reality so nearly enacts A Story, but disgracefully fails to quite deliver the goods – the late Princess of Wales, whose death was suitably mythic but demanded a more “interesting” cause than the mere combination of an impaired driver and a reckless chase. Undoubtedly films will be made, when the legal risk is suitably attenuated by time and the death or disempowerment of those who might prevent it…

      4. The meeting with Elizabeth, the sexual promiscuity of Mary (who was notably prudish about sex), the portrayal of Knox, the tiny ‘armies’, the notion of Scotland as a place with no towns or cities, the multi-racial nature of both courts….the list goes on and on…!

      5. That’s fair enough, but probably are reasonable criticisms of any Hollywood movie – they always portray scenes that didn’t happen and don’t give a full picture of life at the time. In “The Favourite” we only see palaces, parliament and a brothel.

        The point of these films is to tell a story, not to give a history lesson.

        I agree with you that I don’t think Mary was promiscuous, but her contemporaries certainly accused her of it, so I don’t think it is completely unreasonable to portray her as such.

        I’m also not sure that it’s fair to criticise the portrayal of John Knox. I understand that he is something of a sacred cow, but he certainly was not a nice man or an egalitarian!

      6. John Knox was ‘certainly not a nice man’? How do you know? Have you read anything by him – or about him that was not written by his enemies? The Favourite is as bad as Mary Queen of Scots. Of course they tell stories and I have no objection to that…what I object to is the lie that the people of the past shared the same preoccupations and values as they do – when demonstrably they clearly did not.

      7. I don’t think it is true to say that people in the past had entirely different concerns to us.

        In the 16th century, women as political leaders was a new and controversial concept.

        In our century, women as equals – and what precisely that means – is also a controversial concept. Some people *still* are uncomfortable with women in power and women earning the same as men. In the states, which I assume is where this movie was developed, there’s genuine fear of Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi that goes beyond their policies. We know this because their male counterparts are not demonised by the press in the same way. They have people making up stories about their sex lives too!

        The issues with sexuality are really no different than today either. As I said before, but you disagreed with, the difference is that five years ago these aspects of the story would have been edited out.

      8. Yes he was talking against female rule and especially targeting Mary Queen of Scots.

      9. I don’t think Trump is demonised for being a male in high political office, no.

        I don’t see articles making negative references to his gender or accusing him of crimes related to sexuality.

        Are you really saying that you don’t see any gender bias in the way the press treats modern day politicians???

      10. What you don’t see and what exists are two different things. I have read many articles making negative references to Trump’s gender. Yes – there is gender bias – on all sides.

  6. Hello David, this word “woke”? What? Our use of vocabulary gets more bizarre. I thought it was bad enough when they started talking about media “platforms”. Who on earth decided a railway fixture was suitable for such a purpose. Some people have too much time on their hands and not enough imagination to think up new words. Words mean very little these days in some ways and yet seem to be so important nonetheless. Anyway please explain this new word “woke” to me as I don’t understand though can imagine somehow it suggests those of us who aren’t au fait with all this ridiculous posturing are somehow asleep? Keep up the good work.

      1. N0 – thats not what it means….you need to read George Orwell – in our ‘woke’ culture some pigs are more equal than others!

  7. Can I ask what this “woke” means? We must be one of the silliest generations in the way we apply words to mean something other than their original meaning. Platform is something you stand on at a railway station, not some term for a group of media systems. As for this film – I think I’ll give it a miss. Stan and Ollie I can recommend.

    1. Woke is slang from ‘awake’ – meaning we are awake to injustice especially racial….although now it has just come to mean trendy social justice warriors.

      1. Indeed it could – but it would come through the virtue signalling of the SJW’s proclaiming their own wokeness and rewriting hisotry!

  8. “It seems strange that at a time when liberals are concerned about a non-transgender person playing a transgender one, they have no qualms about Lord Randolph, Elizabeth’s ambassador to Scotland, being portrayed as an African.”

    “Unsex me, fiends !” comes to mind. Though whether Lady Macbeth, wife of Scotland’s last Gaelic-speaking king, is a good liberal role-model, is another matter.

  9. Whitewashing history. Pretending Africans were at court and counciling a racist colonizing queen is ridiculous.

    What have fake leftist neo-liberals given us but bullshit history. Faking equality in period pictures only degrades real struggles and not the bullshit stance of modern youth.

    Rewriting history to nullify the past does more harm than good.

    Portraying racist colonists as neo-liberal advantagers helps no one.

    Most racist film I’ve seen in 2 decades.

  10. Makes Braveheart look like a documentary! Everything in that paragraph was pure gold. Thanks for this review. I’m only5 minutes into the film and already having a breakdown at EVERY SINGLE THING you’ve mentioned, except you put it into words for me! Good job. Now I’ll go back to trying to watch this crazy arsed attempted interpretation of the past. It does indeed show up how “silly, superficial and shallow” our Western culture had become. Every film these days feels like the soul of humanity died just a little bit more. Lately I’ve been finding Indian films a relief in comparison.

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