Mary and George
Copyright: Sky TV

Mary & George in Review

Mary and George Villiers used to be ‘the mother and son duo you’ve probably never heard of’, but you will certainly hear about them now. You will see a fair of them bit too, in the racy new drama starring Julianne Moore and Nicholas Galitzine.

Based on the book by Benjamin Woolley, the Sky Original series explores the sex-based (in both senses) intrigue in the court of King James VI and I, the Protestant, Scottish King who inherited the English throne from his cousin, Queen Elizabeth I.

As graphically depicted throughout the series, James did not embrace the same pious virginity which came to define the reign of his predecessor, instead indulging in many lovers who wielded significant political influence, and often held sway at court. It is this favour which the Villiers hope to gain, manoeuvring and manipulating their way from a small, insignificant noble family to the power behind the throne.

If you are looking for insight into the events of James’ reign, you might be disappointed. The series firmly focuses its attention on the personal relationships of the King, and how they were used to manipulate him. This is to its credit – the backdrop of religious and political upheaval is less relevant to this particular story, and too tangled to clearly expose in seven episodes with time to spare for plot.

Queer history is restored, refreshingly not as a point of conflict and shame for the protagonists, but a normal, largely accepted part of their lives and the culture of the court. Queer love, though, would be a stretch. Each relationship is so inherently transactional that many characters begin to feel excessively detached, if still convincing. Hopefully, this series opens the door to yet more accurate portrayals of historical ‘close friendships’ which seemed to take BFFs to the extreme. 

Moore and Galitzine give cold, calculating performances which match the steely ambition of their characters. Though the part gave little room for range on screen, Moore’s performance was particularly outstanding, making the best of what the script had to offer. Both figures possess an impressive ability to maintain composure, even with chaos burning all around them.

Humourous as it often is, this grows monotonous; moments where perhaps more expression may be warranted occasionally felt flat, climaxes underwhelming. The protagonists did not win my sympathy. They suffered from stunted and unexplored development, which might have made them more relatable. By the latter half of the series, I was rooting for tragedy, to watch them suffer what they had inflicted, and give the two accomplished leads a chance to show us some humanity. 

The series’ crowning glory was undoubtedly the performance of Tony Curran as King James VI and I, the monarch around whom the scheming court and cast orbit. Curran’s portrayal of a troubled King, used from birth, and one of the few characters to display true signs of love, in spite of the knowledge it will never be reciprocated unconditionally, was rendered with delicate nuance. To retain a degree of nobility and dignity about a man laid bare before the viewer is no small feat. Curran commanded the screen, and depicted the burden of monarchy, a theme which is as recognisable to the present as it is in a drama set four centuries ago.

Mary & George is a novel series, which finally puts the spotlight on the monarchy’s most tumultuous period, and gives life to the characters who shaped the Britain we see today. A thoroughly binge-worthy drama, the energy of its supporting cast more than compensates for the endlessly placid nature of its leads.