Oh, 'Mary & George'! — Starz series' royal bed-hopping antics

  • by Brian Bromberger
  • Tuesday April 9, 2024
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Julianne Moore and Nicholas Galitzine in 'Mary & George' (photo: Rory Mulvey/Starz, Sky UK)
Julianne Moore and Nicholas Galitzine in 'Mary & George' (photo: Rory Mulvey/Starz, Sky UK)

To those who think history is boring or period dramas are stuffy, I offer the new seven-episode limited series, "Mary & George," streaming now on Starz, as a counterargument. This series is probably the gayest, bawdiest one ever screened on TV, making last year's steamy "Fellow Travelers" seem like a Walt Disney production by comparison.

This thrilling British history raises carnal intrigue and scheming within a monarchy to new heights of audacity and salaciousness. We're a long way from refined Merchant Ivory costume literary adaptations, especially with the series' liberal use of indecorous vulgar language, more reminiscent of Yorgos Lanthimos' "The Favourite." The predominance of lusty queer sex puts "Mary & George" in a category of its own, undoubtedly causing Jane Austen to turn multiple rotations in her grave.

Tony Curran (center) and Nicholas Galitzine (right) in 'Mary & George' (photo: Rory Mulvey/Starz, Sky UK)  

Plum role
As executive producer, Julianne Moore found a plum role as the ambitious, conniving, manipulative Mary Villiers, who plots to land her second-born ("He will merit nothing of human value") handsome, sultry son George (Nicholas Galitzine, the dumb quarterback in "Bottoms" and the English prince in "Red, White, & Royal Blue") into the royal bedchamber of King James I (Tony Curran).

He's the bisexual Jacobean English/Scottish ruler, who likes beautiful young men, an open secret whispered throughout the land. He's described by Mary's second husband, Lord Compton, as a "dead-eyed, horny-handed horror who surrounds himself with many deceitful, well-hung beauties," and by Mary herself as "so cock-struck it's like a curse."

Mary sends George to France to tutor him into an aristocratic gentleman well-versed in the courtly arts of speaking French, fencing, dancing, and screwing, all furthering his education of enticing men. She also acts as a pimp to make sure George ensnares James, but he has a rival in James' favorite lover, the Earl of Somerset (Laurie Davidson), who's willing to fight to the death to maintain his position(s).

George becomes his enemy, but with Mary's help, they enact a cunning plan that is risqué as well as risky, not only to seduce James, but permanently replace Somerset. George is trained both as consort and as a megalomaniacal diplomat, leading to his downfall.

Poison prunes
Meanwhile, Mary must find a wife for her mentally unstable older son John, build up her personal fortune so as not to be dependent on her disapproving husband, and pursue a lesbian affair with a brothel keeper (Niamh Algar) whom she passes off as her lady-in-waiting/servant.

Along the way there are alliances, betrayals, murders with poisoned prunes, orgies and an overall bonk-fest, the usual dysfunctional family dynamics, not to mention a potential war with Spain. All this intrigue marinates in spiky humor with added irreverence and anachronisms making it scrumptious for contemporary audiences.

The first half of the series, which is more titillating and calculating, reveling in its debauchery, with a bevy of secondary vibrant characters, plays better than the less intense, more serious latter part which follows the template of tawdry historical fiction, focusing more on the main protagonists intertwining with international events. It's the story of a monstrous family, desperate to improve their social standing at any cost, constantly repeating their mantra, "Bodies are just bodies," which can be both exhilarating and exhausting to watch.

Julianne Moore and Nicholas Galitzine in 'Mary & George' (photo: Rory Mulvey/Starz, Sky UK)  

Ripe and ribald
There's a huge quota of sex here, overblown but gripping, giving Starz's intimacy coordinators lots of employment, though because of the dark lighting (reminiscent of a Caravaggio painting) it can be hard to discern naked bodies and which carnal act they're performing.

Mostly the sex is not gratuitous, but transactional, used as currency to get ahead and move the plot forward. It can be described as tastefully explicit. Many of the characters one could characterize as sexually fluid, having both straight and queer partners.

Moore is magnificent, thrilling to watch, in that Mary could've been unidimensional, but despite her evil manipulations, Moore makes us realize that as a woman forced to live through her husband and sons (speaking to George: "If I were a man and I looked like you, I'd rule the fucking planet."), she maintains her self-preservation at all costs so she could survive in James's unpredictable court. She was forced to forge ahead regardless of the consequences, though she has soft-hearted moments with her lady-in-waiting and her feeble son.

Galitzine certainly looks the part — few actors play gorgeous better than him — especially when George is brooding or pouting. He has the widest arc, going from naif to a foreign minister corrupted by power. He's fine here, but his talents are limited. Unlike Moore, who in her physical expressions can suggest various panoplies of contradictory feelings, with Galitzine there's little emotional depth, aside from desperate ambition, though he exhibits a modest comic flair in his banter with Moore.

Davidsen as Somerset is a hoot to observe with his cunningness, plus sexier than Galitzine. Curran with his mercurial, emotionally vacillating moods yet revealing a need for tender love, steals every scene he's in.

"Mary & George" is history at its gayest. It's also refreshing not to rehash the Tudor dynasty (Henry VIII and Elizabeth I) and center on a less-known monarch. Still, this is really Mary's story with mother knowing best, and viewers will be rooting for her, despite her cutthroat tactics. With all the wealth and power that the characters accumulate through their sordid machinations, you can't help wondering at the end if they're any happier or wiser.

Loaded with mordant humor, the series never takes itself too seriously, being edgy and invigorating, until the end when it starts to get stale, but you'll have a blast until then, appreciating the handsome production design and visual sumptuousness, plus incisive direction by the gay South African director Oliver Hermanus ("Beauty," "Living") aided by a cheeky script by gay British playwright D.C. Moore ("Killing Eve").

Bodies may be just bodies, but all the horny frolics will delight LGBTQ viewers while simultaneously horrifying them in this scintillating seedy spectacle. We guarantee you will never look at a King James (yes, the identical one!) Bible in the same way ever again.


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