Mary & George, review: Julianne Moore meddles in this bawdy but boring knock-off of The Favourite

This mother-and-son historical drama may be risqué, but risky? Not so much

Nick Hilton
Wednesday 06 March 2024 10:42 GMT
George & Mary trailer

It is always surprising how few historical dramas feature what is known, somewhat euphemistically, as the world’s oldest profession. Prostitution, for money or power, runs through centuries, from the Roman Forum to the Oval Office. In the history of debauchery – at least here in Britain – it’s the early modern era, as Tudor court intrigue transitioned to the turbulence of the Stuart stewardship, that most stands out. Mary & George, a new Sky drama, vividly renders how sex was used to wield power for both prostitute and pimp – who, in this case, happens to be a son and his mother.

Mary Villiers (Julianne Moore) is an ambitious widow facing financial ruin. Her eldest son, John (Tom Victor), has learning difficulties, while her younger son, George (Nicholas Galitzine), is an immature fop. Remarrying Sir Thomas Compton (Sean Gilder) solves her financial issues but does not stifle her ambition. “Have you found me a wife?” George asks, upon returning from a seedy finishing school in France. “I think we aim higher,” Mary replies. And by higher she means higher: the King, James the VI and I of Scotland and England (Tony Curran). James’s homosexuality is notorious throughout the land. “The king,” Compton declares, “is a dead-eyed, horny-handed horror who surrounds himself with many deceitful well-hung beauties.”

And so, Mary sets George the task of seducing His Majesty, competing for his attention with the king’s current favourite, the Earl of Somerset (Laurie Davidson). Thus begins a romp through the 17th century court, where queerness, rather than facing stigma, becomes a double-edged sword. It allows young, ambitious men to influence the king, but it also becomes a point of vulnerability for Mary, who is, herself, carrying on a covert relationship with brothel owner Sandie (Niamh Algar). If this all sounds like a rather familiar set-up, that’s probably because it’s a very similar dynamic to the one depicted in Yorgos Lanthimos’s 2018 Oscar-winner, The Favourite. A hot young arrival at court usurping the established favourite to enter a combustible same-sex relationship with the monarch: clearly, history repeats itself.

But it’s not just the narrative that feels lifted from that Olivia Colman-led love triangle. The tone, too, is similarly irreverent and anachronistic. Mary is described as “half courtesan” and “half bookkeeper” (“front and back of the same shop,” she replies), while the king is “so cockstruck, it’s like a curse”.

There’s plenty of skin on show, and plenty of thrusting – of both hips and opinions. A few years ago, this would’ve felt like a radical way of dealing with period drama, invoking its squalor and tawdriness with a sharpness and vulgarity of language. But this sort of iconoclasm no longer feels fresh, indeed The Great – a foul-mouthed and bawdy show about Catherine, Empress of Russia, scripted by The Favourite writer Tony McNamara – has already lived and died on our TV schedules.

What The Great had that Mary & George lacks is a clear comedic tone. Created by DC Moore, a playwright noted for works like The Empire and Town, which meld historical perspectives with urgent psychodrama, Mary & George has the intricate, almost satirical, timbre of shows like Succession and The White Lotus. “If I were a man and I looked like you, I would rule the f***ing planet,” Mary tells George, channelling her inner-Logan Roy. And yet, Mary & George doesn’t aspire to be a comedy. Moore – one of the great actors of her generation – is more effective in Mary’s dramatic moments than her farcical ones. And so, the tone of the series becomes somewhat confused: lots of screwing, lots of balls (the dancing kind, please), but not much screwball.

All the same, it’s a brilliant cast, and stenographic portraits of the Jacobean court are more interesting than endless retellings of life under Henry VIII. The sexual politics (and sexual politicking) of Mary & George will come to define the show for most viewers, but underneath the heaving buttocks, there’s an interesting depiction of life at the advent of modernity. It’s a shame, then, that in trying to be so modern, the show forgets to take a punt on having an identity of its own. Risqué, perhaps, but risky? Not so much.

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

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