‘Mary & George’ Review: Julianne Moore and Nicholas Galitzine Spew Venom in X-Rated Limited Series

Like many mothers, Mary Villiers (Julianne Moore) wants what’s best for her family. But with two dead husbands to her name and a total lack of societal standing, things are tough. So, what better way to scale the ladder of nobility than by currying favor with the new king, James VI of Scotland and I of England (Tony Curran)? The Jacobean court is full of sycophants, backstabbers and James’ many lovers. Since he has a keen eye for beautiful young men, Mary sees the perfect opportunity for her second-born son George (Nicholas Galitzine.) Secure the family name through the monarch’s bed and all will be fine. Just as long as he doesn’t stumble from his perch as James’ new favorite boy…

Following in the proud tradition of shows like “Rome” and “The Tudors,” where high-end historical drama prestige is blended with shameless sex appeal, “Mary & George” is the latest tale of real-life intrigue to receive a hefty dose of NSFW pleasure. There are plenty of orgies, but don’t worry: it’s all (reasonably, depending on who you ask) historically accurate. While Starz has been all too happy to play up the sex for marketing purposes, the heart of the series is a pretty traditional drama of royal and political intrigue, complete with all the aesthetic trappings one expects from this genre.

Largely written by British playwright and “Killing Eve” contributor D.C. Moore, with the first two episodes directed by “Living” filmmaker Oliver Hermanus, “Mary & George” is most concerned (and having the most fun) with the idea of sex as the ultimate tool of power. Everyone in this show is doing it to gain power, give it out or force their family into a better social standing. That means lots of scenes in darkly-lit rooms that resemble more heated versions of the masquerade ball in “Eyes Wide Shut.”

Julianne Moore and Nicholas Galitzine in “Mary & George.” (Starz)

Mary, a devilishly pragmatic woman all too aware of her lack of options, takes one look at George upon returning from his studies in France and decides he needs to seduce the most powerful man in the kingdom. Julianne Moore’s acidic wit and steely demeanor completely sell this lofty ambition and surprising execution. She is a proud schemer, her eyes always flitting across the room looking for a new ally or target. Of course, everyone in court is like this, but you never doubt Mary’s ruthless determination, nor her willingness to force George to do whatever it takes to get to the top. Galitzine, fresh from a star-making turn in “Red, White & Royal Blue,” is appropriately lascivious, both as pouting boy and shrewd power player. It doesn’t take long before he fully reveals himself as his mother’s son.

There’s much pleasure to be had here. How could there not be when everyone is clearly having so much fun, spitting out bitchy dialogue and taking their clothes off? It’s a fun opportunity to dramatize a lesser known part of the past, while centering an overlooked queer part of history (more of this and less Tudor stuff, please!) James, played with lewd relish by Scottish actor Tony Curran, who already looks strikingly like a Stuart monarch, is perched atop an uncertain throne. The English in court are mad at the Scots having so much power, his young lover Robert Carr (Laurie Davidson in mustache-twirling mode) is desperate to retain his title as the King’s favorite, and his high spending and pet causes threaten to inspire revolt. It’s no wonder James is tetchy, especially since “Mary & George” makes it clear that everyone is indeed talking about him behind his back. At the heart of every good royal drama is a gossipy soap opera, and this one is very fun to watch — though it does lean into more familiar territory by the end of its seven-episode run.

Laurie Davidson and Tony Curran in “Mary & George.” (Starz)

The overall tone is distinctly cheeky, with a bleak sense of humor permeating this stifling space where everyone seeks the attention of a paranoid bisexual with mommy issues. The series opens with George half-heartedly attempting suicide, only for his mother to react as though he’s mid-toddler tantrum. While the core hook of the show is real — James did favor George Villiers and most likely had an affair with him — “Mary & George” is also keen to stretch the limits of accuracy in favor of a good scandal. As with basically every period drama these days, the dialogue is thoroughly modern, and it often falls into the trite camp. There are some amazing and scathing dialogues here, mostly from Mary and the various women of the court who know exactly what she’s up to, particularly Trine Dyrholm as a weary Queen Anne.

But then there are moments that seem as though they were written exclusively for Instagram. “If I were a man and I looked like you, I’d rule the f—g planet,” Mary tells her son. It is surely true but feels try-hard in the context, better suited for the memes than the scene. The more the show leans into a kind of knowing modernity, the less interesting it becomes, largely because we have historical dramas that do it better and this show’s strengths lie elsewhere.

“Mary & George” is paced strongly enough to make for a substantial binge-watch, although the viewer may feel, by the end, that these characters remain more opaque than first suggested. These are, after all, figures of intrigue who seldom let their true feelings show. But when they are so physically laid bare, the viewer can’t help but hope for some emotional rawness to match that. Still, as a sexed-up tale of passion as a tool of power, “Mary & George” is a stylish offering that will satisfy viewers who saw the marketing and knew exactly what they wanted.

“Mary & George” premieres Friday, April 5, on Starz.

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