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Mary & George review: Julianne Moore leads brilliant cast in historic romp

It's hard to turn away from this sublime piece of historical fiction

4.0 rating

By Alastair James

Mary & George
Julianne Moore as Mary and Nicholas Galitzine as George (Image: Sky UK)

After many years of predominantly straight historical fiction, we finally have a queer equivalent. Mary & George is treated with the same gravitas and budget that we’ve come to see on shows such as The Tudors and Bridgerton. However, this series has many distinct differences to both of those.

The series focuses on the real-life historical figures Mary and George Villiers and their plot to influence King James I of England and VI of Scotland. Plotting, backstabbing, and political intrigue see the titular characters (played by Julianne Moore and Nicholas Galitzine) rise from the middle classes to the very top of the social hierarchy in the Jacobean era.

Mary & George’s story starts in 1592 with the birth of George, Mary’s second son. The matriarch wonders given his position if he’ll ever amount to anything. Years later, in 1612 following the death her husband George, Mary discovers her delicate position in society and must marry again in order to maintain any prospects for her and her family. George is ushered off to France to be educated with the hopes that when he returns he will be the family’s saviour by marrying well.

Mary & George
Julianne Moore as Mary in Mary & George (Image: Sky UK)

By the time he returns, Mary has her sights firmly set on a “cockstruck” King James (Tony Curran) as her winning ticket and plots to use George’s good looks for her benefit and that of her family. From there we see George enter the Royal Court, bewitch the King, antagonise the King’s current favourite man, Robert Carr, the Earl of Somerset, and set everything else that follows in motion.

The series is led by a sublime performance from Julianne Moore. The only American in the cast, it’s hard to believe given her faultless British accent. Not surprising for one of her generation’s greatest actresses. She is the ultimate Lady Macbeth and puppetmaster, quietly and delicately working her plan and herself up the social ladder. Moore seems to enjoy inhabiting a role based on a figure of which very little is actually known. She brings a cool and calculating cold-bloodedness to Mary that is hard to turn away from while also delivering a tender performance as a mother.

Mary & George
Nicholas Galitizine as Goerge in Mary & George (Image: Sky UK)

Nicholas Galitizine shines as George. Perhaps best known to many as the fictional Prince Henry in the gay romance Red, White & Royal Blue, here the British actor really gets a chance to spread his wings and demonstrate his considerable acting chops. This is, in part, thanks to a fully fleshed-out character and a brilliant script. Nonetheless, Galitizine transforms from a young “prissy” child to a strong, confident, and sexually liberated man who eventually takes control of his power, perhaps to the displeasure of his own mother…

Equally, Tony Curran delivers a remarkable performance as King James. Few probably know much of England’s queer monarch, and here Curran gets to explore all facets of the man including his more tender and emotional side. Curran is measured in his performance boldly throwing himself into everything and creating a relatable and authentic queer character. Together and in each pair the central three cast members exhibit a wonderful and natural chemistry that helps lift the story from the page and keeps the audience engaged.

Mary & George
Tony Curran as King James in Mary & George (Image: Sky UK)

The intimate scenes, mostly queer, are refreshingly not treated as salacious and scandalous. Not all of them, but often it feels as if the sex scenes are essential to the plot, driving it forward rather than titillating the audience or being used gratuitously. Under Oliver Hermanus’ direction queerness is treated respectfully and given authenticity. As well as being rough and wild we also see characters explore more sensual, tender, and emotional connections. What’s even more refreshing is that a range of queer identities are explored throughout the series beyond that of George and James.

DC Moore’s script is smart, funny, and full of expletives. The profane language may not be entirely time-accurate but it does help bring the story into the modern-day. The costumes are exquisite, the sets grand, and the photography divine. Everything looks and sounds amazing. There’s much to enjoy with Mary & George.

All seven episodes of Mary & George will launch on Sky Atlantic and streaming service NOW on 5 March.