"Mary & George" Source: Starz

Review: 'Mary & George' So Epic, So Gay

Kilian Melloy READ TIME: 4 MIN.

Starz imports the seven-episode British series "Mary & George" and shows American television a thing or two about hot gay sex, palace drama, costume porn, and fierce female characters.

We start in the year 1592, when Mary Villiers (Julianne Moore), a woman of formerly low status who has married into one of Britain's noble families, gives birth to a second son she names George. Curiously, she greets his arrival with little joy – but there's something both deep and disturbing about the devotion she shows the infant from his first moments, a proprietorial connection summarized by her refusal to have the umbilical cord cut right away.

That cord stretches across time as we jump forward 20 years and find the infant has grown into a handsome specimen of a man (Nicholas Galitzine). He's in love with a serving girl; he's depressed; he's a total mama's boy and a drama queen, and Mary will have none of his histrionics except for those she can shape according to her own schemes.

And what schemes they are. Seeing her son's preternatural beauty, Mary is not at all above pimping him out to elevate her own status in British society. After a stint in France – the royal palaces of which turn out to be hotbeds of carnal hijinks and suitable training grounds for the king's court back home in England – George learns the power of sexual desire when applied to matters of society and, more thrillingly, statecraft.

The show's early episodes are littered with moments of comedy as George, still naive, fumbles his way toward the fulfillment of his mother's ambition: To seduce King James I (Tony Curran) and, once installed in his bed, ensure the family's wealth and privilege. But there are obstacles. It's not like this isn't a royal road to riches that others haven't already charted, and George's progress seems cursed by plenty of faceplants in the mud or on the palace cobblestones; even when he arrives at court, his fresh-faced beauty (and James' notice of it) makes him some powerful enemies, including James' Privy Council, the handsome Earl of Somerset (Laurie Davidson), whose own expertise at the deployment of desire makes him a match for George's beauty and Mary's cunning.

The series eventually settles into a groove: George is the one with the sexual influence, but Mary is the master at using it. Mother and son make a formidable team, as succession of enemies oppose them only to be knocked aside like ninepins. Mary, meanwhile, secures her status on all sides, using her firstborn son – the rather dull and somewhat deranged John (Tom Victor) – as another anchor point by maneuvering to get him married into another powerful family. Meanwhile, third-born son Kit (Jacob McCarthy) (who is just as handsome as George, and twice as competent as either of his brothers) stands in the shadows like a hidden knife, always ready to strike, and as sharp-edged as Mary herself. (Daughter Susan, played by Alice Grant, is almost completely drowned out by the ruthless dramatics of her mother and siblings.)

"Mary & George"
Source: Starz

But Mary is not above the sexual fray herself. She's bloodlessly efficient at manipulating men when she needs to – and she forges a passionate (and brutally useful) lesbian romance with a woman whose street smarts and lethal competence maker her a good match for Mary.

Like all historical dramas, "Mary & George" enjoys its artistic license, and you can feel the show playing to contemporary viewers. Still, its starting point seems to be sound: It is the overall consensus that George and James I were indeed lovers, and George's enormously consequential influence over James I is undisputed. (Villiers was also despised by others in James' court, as we see George is here.) Figures like Sir Walter Raleigh (Joseph Mawle) and Francis Bacon (Mark O'Halloran) also play major roles in the story, and neither is lionized. Above and beyond the personal jealousies and betrayals of this coterie of 17th century movers and shakers there's also the question of political tensions between England and Spain. Will the power brokers influencing King James find it suits their purposes better to avoid war, or to plunge into it?

Given that the show's marketing isn't shy about sex as a selling point ("Lust. For Power" is its tagline), it's important to note that gay viewers will be gratified at how the series fulfills its promises. The screen is filled with naked skin – plenty of it male, and often tastefully swaddled in obscuring shadows or artfully splayed limbs. Still, the real heat comes from the friction between sexual satiation and affairs of state, with Mary's laser-like intensity of focus burning through any and all opposition. As George grows into his own skin and gains confidence, he, too, risks ending up on the wrong end of Mary's fierce conniving.

There's a lot of epic crammed into this D.C.Moore-created project as breathtaking sexual politics simmer under all the fine fabric and courtly formality, feeling like "Dangerous Liaisons" gone even more maliciously awry. You get a sense of history as something fundamentally dour, dark, and perilous. There are clearly larks to be had in this centuries-ago world, but, as today, the veneer of civilization feels perilously thin.

South African director Oliver Hermanus ("Moffie") serves as an executive director and directs the first three episodes, which – perhaps not coincidentally – most successfully integrate the show's wry, funny, sexy, and scandalous aspects. Julianne Moore serves as an executive director as well, and she brings a bracing feminine perspective to the project. As strong as any of the men, and smarter by far than most of them, her Mary doesn't accept her lot in life; why should she, when her male compatriots have so little compunction about vying for prominence and privilege? Moore is magnetic, her character is deftly written, and as hot as the action is that the guys get up to, her scenes are the show's best. Tune in for the men, by all means, but don't be surprised if you stay for Moore and Algar.

"Mary & George" premieres April 5 on Starz.

by Kilian Melloy , EDGE Staff Reporter

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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