Mary & George: epic drama and ruff sex – this is everything you want in a period romp

<span>Wandering eyes … Julianne Moore and Nicholas Galitzine in Mary & George.</span><span>Photograph: Sky</span>
Wandering eyes … Julianne Moore and Nicholas Galitzine in Mary & George.Photograph: Sky

The hardest part of this job is writing about drama. How do you get revved up for drama? “They said things in the right way. No jokes. Everyone was delivering their lines very earnestly. And then drama happened.” Every time a big drama project rolls around I worry: what can I say about the costume choices, the music, the direction? Because the acting in these things is always very pure, good, capital-A acting, and then never really gives me a critical in. It’s just: it’s drama.

Mary & George (5 March, 9pm, Sky Atlantic) then, which is a drama. The costumes are nice, the music is genuinely fantastic, the direction is gorgeous. But actually, something texturally interesting about Mary & George captured me from the off, and that’s it now. I get what you lot are always on about. Drama is good, finally, and I see why it always ends up winning awards.

The brief of Mary & George is so good: Julianne Moore plays Mary Villiers, a famously scheming real-life Countess of Buckingham, who is jagging around merry olde England in the early 1600s, doing a low, blunt English accent and trying to hustle her second-born son, George (played cheekboningly well by Red, White & Royal Blue’s Nicholas Galitzine). Don’t you want to watch Julianne Moore use her gorgeous adult son as a sexy royal pawn? You do, and I do too, and we’re right to. The two leads are great – Galitzine’s George is moping and moaning and wet and soft, until a formative trip to France turns him into a sexy little harlot, and Moore is, well, Moore: scheming and manipulative and charming, always running her eyes from left to right as she tries to calculate the next shrewd social chess move, inscrutable. They are both bastards, basically, but doing it in such a fun knowing way that it’s dynamising to watch.

“Knowing” is the operative word here: it would be easy to label a show like this as “camp”, but I’m not sure that’s quite right. There is a lot of enjoyable historical queerness, of course – Villiers is constantly trying to get her son in front of the wandering eye of King James I (a joyously lewd Tony Curran), there’s a lot of sucking the juices of a fresh ripe fruit off a thumb, a lot of suggestive dangly gold earrings and everyone is constantly eating their dinner in a brothel – but despite that, the sex in Mary & George is almost always power over lust, and is played as such. Mary & George pulsates with “romp” energy, and it would be easy to lean into that, but what everyone is doing here is far more interesting: Laurie Davidson’s Robert Carr is screen-grabbingly villainous, Niamh Algar is full of bolshie intrigue, Sean Gilder’s Sir Thomas Compton a perfect TV grump. I am a sucker for a period-ish drama where everyone, nevertheless, talks like they’re normal (last year’s The Gallows Pole and Mary & George are comparable in that regard, though with a valley-sized class divide between them), and this lands right in the sweet spot: a complete absence of “yes my Lord, no my Lord”, and instead wicked little characters tête-à-têteing behind velvet curtains.

Two more compliments before I let you go off and try to figure out how to make the Sky box series-link this then get frustrated and give up: there are a couple of directorial choices that make Mary & George feel fresh and new and interesting. One of them is – and this is going to blow your mind – no drone shots. Perhaps period productions in recent years have suffered from a trend of “over-epic-ing” (too many sweeping camera angles, too many catapults flinging rocks into the mist: the same way sci-fi sometimes feels like two computers being a bit mad at each other) but M&G feels very low-down and real as a result. You actually see real human faces move, you see people scheme and argue over banquets, you hear the crackle of the fire. That’s good. And, also: once an episode, there’s a crucial scene – a moment of humiliation, or a great win, or some huge, well, drama – that is wound down to slow-motion, all dialogue and audio cut out of it, an epic orchestral tune playing behind it. The effect is like looking at a many-layered renaissance painting – almost still but with lots of spinning wheels of intrigue – and are, mainly because Galitzine is so often in the middle of them, fantastic to look at. What a treat, m’lord! What a little dramatic treat!

  • Mary & George is released in the UK and Australia on 5 March and Starz in the US on 5 April.