“Mary & George”: A Machiavellian Mother’s Quest for Power in 17th Century England | Review

A scandalous courtly story from late 16th-century England comes to life in a bold period drama dominated by an entrancing Julianne Moore: featuring queer elements


Mary & George

A scandalous courtly story from late 16th-century England comes to life in a bold period drama dominated by an entrancing Julianne Moore: featuring queer elements.

Mary Villiers, a smart and extremely ambitious woman of humble origins, sees James VI, King of England, Ireland, and Scotland, as her chance for redemption. With great cunning, she begins her social climb by urging her son George, a charming young man, to seduce the monarch. Amidst intrigues and deceits, Mary carves a path for herself at court through the king’s love and desire for George, becoming one of the most powerful women in England. But will her son remain loyal, or will he break away from his mother to carve his own place in history?

Mary & George is a bold period drama that tells the true story of Mary Villiers, portrayed by the hypnotic Julianne Moore, who persuaded her second son, George, played by the now-recognized sex symbol Nicholas Galitzine (Cinderella, Purple Hearts), to seduce King James VI of Scotland, also known as James I of England (Tony Curran, known for Mayflies, Your Honor).

Based on the novel The King’s Assassin by Benjamin Woolley, the miniseries, written by D.C. Moore (Killing Eve) and directed by Oliver Hermanus (Living), brings to light a scandalous story with a queer twist and a contemporary flair, set at the dawn of the 17th century in the court of James I, son of Mary Stuart. A cultured and art-loving monarch, the king preferred hunting and celebrating beauty over politics, surrounding himself with handsome young men. Therefore, Mary Villiers, with a murky past and no properties or married children, is determined to push her son into the king’s bed to secure titles, prosperity, and peace for her family.

Aware of the hellish condition of women in the 17th century, Mary Villiers, shortly after getting rid of her husband, dons a veil and all her cunning to seek a new husband’s hand, Sir Thomas Compton: “I want nothing of your estate, except, before our wedding, a small stipend for my son’s education.” Ravenous in her insatiable desire for power, Machiavellian in her ruthlessness and cold calculation, Mary Villiers decides her second-born’s fate from birth. By delaying the cutting of the umbilical cord, she foreshadows the visceral bond she seeks to forge with her son.

Episode by episode, we witness George’s formative journey, from a naively beautiful and unaware young man to a charismatic figure who can dominate even his own mother and become the king’s favorite. As in Yorgos Lanthimos‘s film The Favourite, where Abigail Hill wins the favor of Queen Anne, ousting the previous favorite, George usurps the Earl of Somerset, becoming one of the most powerful, and most hated, men in England. Among intrigues, deceptions, poisonings, diabolical plans, sex, and numerous twists, the narrative progresses smoothly, only slowing down in scenes of sensual sodomy where naked bodies are glimpsed in chiaroscuro like a Caravaggio painting.

But the body is not just a source of pleasure; it sometimes becomes a tool of power, a battlefield where victors and losers are constantly reestablished. Amidst lustful boudoirs and opulent, dark-toned salons, we advance through this behind-closed-doors drama to see just how far a mother’s ambition can go, as she so skillfully turns herself into a monstrous mask even for her own children.

Francesca Ferri

Cinematografo, May 3, 2024


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