Mary & George, review: sex-filled period drama is a historical romp in every sense

Julianne Moore and Nicholas Galitzine in Mary & George
Julianne Moore and Nicholas Galitzine in Mary & George - Sky UK

It takes some audacity to hire Simon Russell Beale for a drama and cast him as a corpse, but Mary & George (Sky Atlantic) is nothing if not bold. This isn’t your cosy period drama. Put it this way: episode three opens with an orgy featuring the King and members of ‘The Well Hung Crew’, aka his gentlemen of the bedchamber. And to think that we once gasped at Mr Darcy in his wet shirt.

There has been a sea change in costume dramas since The Favourite, the film starring Olivia Colman, and The Great, the TV series with Nicholas Hoult and Elle Fanning. The trend is now for them to be arch and rude and slightly ridiculous, with sex scenes and language designed to shock. Mary & George might have felt bracingly different a few years ago, but it is now almost run-of-the-mill.

Julianne Moore stars as Mary Villiers, a fiercely ambitious mother in Jacobean England who grooms her son, George, to become a lover of James I. The King (played by Tony Curran) is married but likes to spend his time in the company of handsome young men. That is a matter of historical fact, although this screenplay – written by DC Moore, and based on a non-fiction book by Benjamin Woolley – takes the facts and runs riot with them.

George is played by Nicholas Galitzine, who looks as if he has stepped straight from the catwalk. You don’t watch his acting, you just gaze at his cheekbones. Mary comes from relatively humble stock but recognises that she has a prize asset. “If I were a man and I looked like you,” she tells George, “I’d rule the f---ing planet.”

Mary & George portrays the saucy side of Jacobean England
Mary & George portrays the saucy side of Jacobean England - Sky UK

Mary is a formidable character, one-part pimp to two-parts Mrs Bennet, who schemes to get George in front of the King as a way of hauling the whole family out of penury. First, she packs him off to France to “learn refinement” (a bit of fencing, some more orgies). Then she engineers a place for him at court. Meanwhile, she is clawing her own way up the social ladder by marrying men of means, while simultaneously having an affair with a brothel madam. I’m not sure that last bit is in the history books.

For a Hollywood actress, Moore’s English accent isn’t half bad. She commands the screen and drives the action, but this is one of those productions in which the smaller, more comedic roles provide the entertainment. They include Nicola Walker as an absolute horror of a prospective mother-in-law for another of Mary’s sons, and Sean Gilder as Sir Thomas Compton, a gruff northerner who becomes one of Mary’s husbands.

Gilder is the best thing in it and speaks exactly as someone would speak now, rather than in the formal language that period dramas used to employ. He’s furious when an advance royal party turns up at his house informing him that the King will be coming to stay: “I put King James up once before and the big bugger and goat f---er nearly bankrupted me 10 times over. Honestly? It’s a f---ing nightmare.”

A look at the reign of James I is welcome – apart from the Gunpowder Plot, this isn’t a period of history that gets too much attention – but much of what happens is pure conjecture. A stylish drama, but with little substance.

Mary & George is on Sky Atlantic at 9pm on Tuesday 5 March; and available to stream on NOW