‘Mary & George’ Review: Julianne Moore and Nicholas Galitzine in Starz’s Juicy Period Soap

Early in Mary & George, George Villiers (Nicholas Galitzine) halfheartedly attempts suicide in protest of his family’s refusal to let him marry the lowborn Jenny (Emily Fairn), despite his insistences that she’s no mere servant girl “in my heart.” When his mother, Mary (Julianne Moore), finds him, however, she reacts not with worry, but annoyance. “That’s not how it works. That’s not how a single thing fucking works,” she snaps. “Are you five?”

Thus the tone is set for DC Moore’s take on what will turn out to be a romantic affair so potent, it’ll help to define the last days of King James VI and I (Tony Curran). (The monarch’s confusing double title pertains to his sovereignty over Scotland and over England and Ireland, respectively.)

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In short: earnest, heartfelt sentiment is out; icy pragmatism is in. The approach does not always serve the Starz miniseries flawlessly, especially as its tone grows more serious in the final hours. But it does make for delicious drama, serving up lots of bloody plots and steamy sex scenes garnished by flashes of mordant humor.

The rope burns around George’s neck have barely begun to heal when Mary sets in motion her plans to further the family’s fortunes by leveraging her second son’s graceful form and sultry good looks. George is shipped off to France, where he’s to be tutored in gentlemanly pursuits such as fencing and dancing, as well as in the more furtive arts of seduction and screwing.

Upon his return to England, George’s newfound comfort with his interest in men proves most convenient. Mary spots an opportunity to plant him in the path of the king, who’s whispered to be growing weary of his current favorite, the Earl of Somerset (Laurie Davidson).

Mary’s scheme is one that yields, for the viewer, plenty of wicked and bawdy pleasures. The characters of Mary & George are unapologetically lusty, and so is the show itself: Hardly an hour goes by without at least a few shots of backs or buttocks writhing against sumptuous backdrops in various configurations.

The dialogue, likewise, delights in the ribald and wry. When a royal aide gripes about “that surly sodomite Somerset and his Scottish semen guzzlers,” actor Angus Wright tears into the alliteration like he’s savoring a steak. And though Mary’s response — “Oh, you would prefer we were ruled by our own plucky, home-grown sodomites?” — is delivered half in jest, you can see the wheels turning in her head already.

As a protagonist, Mary is hardly likable; the show’s very first scene sees her cradling George minutes after his birth, and predicting then and there that he “will merit nothing of human value.” But she is fascinating as a woman too jaded to allow herself the luxury of (much) softness, and too ambitious to wait for propriety to catch up.

Following the death of her abusive husband (Simon Russell Beale), Mary’s accountant (Ankur Bahl) warns her that etiquette demands she wait four to six weeks before hunting a new husband to foot her bills. The sentence isn’t even out of his mouth before a hilarious smash-cut to a caption reading “two weeks later.”

Moore’s performance is as adaptable as Mary herself. Whether the character is feigning kindness or gloating over a defeated foe or bitterly remarking on her lot in life, the actor glows with such purpose she becomes the sun around which the rest of the series revolves.

George is rather less compelling by comparison, even if he is the one shouldering most of the series’ raciest content. Though he transforms over the seven hours from a naïve puppet to a power player in his own right, George isn’t actually given many notes to play besides “handsome,” “whiny” and occasionally “brooding” — and while Galitzine (Red, White & Royal Blue) handles those just fine, he isn’t able to bring out the subtler tones that might make the character sing.

Nor is the script much help in that regard. As meticulously as DC Moore lays out George and Mary’s ascent, he leaves their interiorities vague. We’re left to piece together their evolving emotions or shifting relationship through their actions, rather than invited to understand how their intimate thoughts and feelings translate into their decisions.

Meanwhile, the series only rarely widens its scope beyond the Villiers’ maneuvers. Mary & George unfolds at the highest echelons of influence, within one of the most formidable empires in history. Yet the series only occasionally considers how James is regarded by his public, or contextualizes this sordid chapter within larger British history, or tries to trace the consequences of these events to the present.

As the Villiers climb the ranks, their machinations increasingly have the potential to end lives, define global alliances and even spark war — but the ripples they create feel too minor when the world around them barely feels real to begin with.

Mary & George seems to presume instead that simply telling a really juicy story will be enough, and in fairness, it mostly is. The nobles are painted as a venal class motivated only by petty self-interest and occupied only by plotting against each other, which makes them difficult to admire but entertaining to watch. They trade insults, hoard secrets, mess with each other simply because they can: At one point, George has sex with an enemy desperate for his help, and then informs him he won’t be offering his aid after all: “I just wanted, like my mother, to fuck you,” he purrs into his now-panicked lover’s ear.

On the rare occasion that a character sincerely cares about someone, it makes them no nobler, only more vulnerable. Curran’s James is not quite a sympathetic figure — he’s reckless, mercurial, easily distracted. But he is often a pitiable one, prone to asking questions like “Am I a lovesick fool?” of the very man who’s hoping to manipulate that tenderness to his own ends.

The king alone seems to hope he’s living in a fairy tale, or a star-crossed romance, or a grand historical epic. The fun of Mary & George is that it recognizes all along that he’s just been a pawn in a particularly vicious soap.

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