Julianne Moore Finds Her Limited Series Role in Mary & George

David B Morris
9 min readApr 15, 2024

Starz’s Latest Period Piece Tells A Story I Never Knew But Now Want To See Every Sordid Detail of

In my lifetime there have been few actresses willing to lay themselves bare than Julianne Moore.

I don’t just mean the obvious fact that Moore has been, with the exception of Kate Winslet, the most prominent actress who I’ve seen naked in so many great films. I mean I’ve rarely seen few performers of either gender who are willing to lay themselves bare emotionally than her. I remember the first time I saw her in Robert Altman’s masterpiece Short Cuts. In it Moore and her husband, played by Matthew Modine, are clearly a couple in conflict. In the most critical scene, after Moore has taken off her pants to reveal she’s not wearing underwear, Moore tears into her husband to reveal that yes, she did have an affair.

I think it took far too long for both of critics and certainly the Academy Awards to realize what a great performer Julianne Moore was because she’s also one of the greatest portrayers of restraint. Her characters far too often have conflict and demons beneath the surface but they spend their lives holding it all in. This was perhaps the most clear in 2002, when she became the first Actress since Holly Hunter and Emma Thompson in 1993 to be nominated for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress in the same year for her brilliant work as two 1950s housewives struggling with the limitations of their era: Cathy Whitaker, who in Far From Heaven learns her husband is gay and become attracted to her African-American gardener and Laura in The Hours, who walks out on her life for reasons that not even she is willing to admit. That she lost to Nicole Kidman for Best Actress shows how the Oscars recognize showiness over restraint.

Moore has the misfortune of always choosing ill received sequels to legendary films: she appeared in The Lost World and had the misfortune of following up Jodie Foster to play Clarice Starling in Hannibal or remakes of much better films: Gus Van Sant’s Psycho, Kimberly Peirce’s Carrie. The lion’s share of her films have been brilliant on but she far too often is ignored by the Oscars: she should have gotten nominated for both A Single Man and The Kids are All Right but her co-stars were and she wasn’t. I’ve almost never seen Moore give a bad performance and I think the director who used her best was Paul Thomas Anderson. Her work in Boogie Nights was a master class and she was robbed of a nomination for her work in Magnolia. In a film filled with emotional breakdowns I’ve never forgotten the monologue she gave in which she tells a pharmacist that she married her much older-husband for money and now that he’s dying she realized she actually loves him. She deserved a nomination for that rather than the period piece The End of The Affair, where she was restrained emotionally but laid herself bare physically.

Moore is so versatile in her work that she only won her Oscar for Still Alice because she was willing to play the game. She hasn’t been nominated since even though she’s given better performances, most recently in May/December.

I’m actually kind of stunned, given how many great roles it has given to her contemporaries over the last decade, that Moore has not done, well, more work in television then she has. It’s not that what she’s done hasn’t been worthy of her. Any fan of 30 Rock remembers her rollicky comic performance as Nancy, the former girlfriend of Jack Donaghy where she took on an extremely obvious Boston accent for humorous effect. Three years she took on the role of Sarah Palin in the brilliant HBO TV movie Game Change, which dominated the Emmys in 2012 leading Moore to dominate the awards circuit, winning an Emmy, a Golden Globe, a SAG Award and the Critics Choice Award, one of the first performers to make a clean sweep of all four major TV awards in the same year. She then went back to doing movies for the next several years, aside from the odd one-shot in the odd series. Only recently did she make an attempt to do a limited series in Appletv Lisey’s Story but the reception to the adaptation of Stephen King’s novel was viscerally unfavorable.

But she has persisted and now it seems she has found a role worthy of her in Mary & George. It took a while for the British series to find a home in American TV; AMC dropped before it was supposed to air but Starz was willing to grab it up. Having seen the first two episodes, I’m grateful they did.

The title characters are Mary Villiers and her son George. Historically George Villiers was the first Duke of Buckingham. Villiers was the favorite of King James VI of Scotland who eventually became James I. He was a key adviser to the King, eventually became Lord High Admiral and de factor foreign minister. Under his stewardship there were many failed military campaigns and he very quickly became unpopular among the public. Finally in 1628 he was assassinated by John Felton, a disgruntled Army Officer.

Those of us used to series of the United Kingdom of this period — most notably The Tudors — are used to seeing the elegance and refinement of the court. That’s not the story Mary and George is interested in telling, for which I’m grateful. The mood for the series is set in the first scenes when Mary has given birth but a maid has dropped her newborn son on the floor. She seems indifferent to that as well as reluctant to cut the umbilical cord — he is the ‘second son’. She is left in the room alone and considers whether she should have left him there before reluctantly letting him live. We then cut to him at the age of 18 hanging from a tree branch. Mary walks by, and reluctantly cuts him down, saving him from dying. Neither is grateful for the action.

Throughout the first two episodes we see an England and Scotland that is filthy, dirty and full of sex everywhere. This isn’t the England of Elizabeth; it’s the world of Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favorite and I mean that as a compliment. Mary, we see, is a woman who has struggled from nothing to find a place in this world. Her husband beat her extensively and did the same to all her children. No one seems that upset when he’s dead or even after burying him. Given the state of her finances, she knows the only chance to survive is to marry again. Asked how long she should wait; her lawyer tells her: “Four weeks. Six to be safe.” We then see a huge title card saying: “TWO WEEKS LATER.” If we ever needed proof Mary was a woman who had no use for convention we know it when she walks up to her future husband and introduces herself as such.

Mary is determined to find a future for her children and she is determined to find one for George (Nicholas Galitzine). In their opening scenes George would rather kill himself than go to France to become more cultured. He doesn’t think he’ll survive in Europe and considered how seasick he is on arriving we wonder how he made the crossing to France. It doesn’t help when he walks through the villa he will be getting his ‘education’ and goes through a room to see robust coupling going on. “The other way was worse,” he’s told and we helpfully see that too.

Mary’s ambition becomes clear very quickly: she uses her husbands influence because she wants to meet the king. The future James I has been hinted at over the centuries as being gay; Mary & George based on DC Moore’s book states it outright. The first time Mary sees James in private, he is engaged in kissing his current favorite Somerset. Mary’s husband is repelled by this idea. Mary sees it as an opportunity.

Mary & George makes it very clear that George Villiers managed his rise from his humbleness because of his romantic relationship with the king. It’s fascinating that neither mother nor son seem that bothered by this — “Bodies are just bodies” is a refrain both have. To both of them it’s clear being branded a deviant is a lesser fate than dying in poverty.

Watching Moore and Galiztine interact, I was reminded of a previous Moore film Savage Grace a deeply flawed but occasionally fascinating docudrama of the troubled relationship of Barbra Baekeland and her son Antony (an early role by Eddie Redmayne) Like George, Antony was homosexual who had a twisted relationship with his mother. This is made clear in a critical when both mother and son share the same male lover, first individually — and then together. Antony is regarded as a failure by society, but its clear there’s an incestuous relationship between Barbra and Antony that ends in tragedy for both.

It’s not clear if incest was involved between Mary and George Villiers but there’s a similar dark relationship in the series, a willingness to do whatever it takes to get to secure themselves. Both mother and son are more than willing to use their bodies and its clear that the mother is already willing to kill to protect her position.

I’m often drawn to historical series and this is an era of British history I’m not familiar with. We’ve already met James mother Queen Anne; Francis Bacon is a presence in the court and Tony Curran is superb as James as much a buffoon as he is brute. But holding it together is Moore, who gets to perfectly balance both parts of her brilliance: restraint in the court, emotional rawness among her family. Watching her in every scene, I was reminded of Roger Ebert’s line calling Charles Napier as an actor who looked “like a wolf about to devour a T-Bone.” Watching Moore as Mary, I see her playing someone who would fight that wolf for a scrap of meat — and in that matchup, I’d fear for the wolf.

Mary & George is what I hoped The Regime would be: a look behind the scenes at what people will do to climb to power and how you have to fight for it when you have it. The fact that Mary & George is historical and The Regime fictional may be in part why I think this series is by far the better work. Yet as experience has taught me the latter is more likely to see Emmy nominations than the former: even with its rebranding HBO is still considered the home of prestige TV and Starz it’s redheaded stepchild, no matter how many brilliant shows it produces to the contrary. Never was this made more evident when two years ago Julia Roberts led Gaslit on this network in what was one of the best series of 2022 — and neither she nor the series got anything from the Emmys. The fact that Roberts gave a far more visceral performance than so many of the other nominees — including Julia Garner for the vapid Inventing Anna — shows that quality is less important to the Emmys than pedigree — a lesson that Mary Villiers knows all too well.

Still after just two episodes I already know that Mary & George is superior to both of the prominent HBO Limited Series this year heading by Oscar winning actresses: The Regime and Night Country. And it’s not a close question that Moore’s work as Mary comes from a deeper and rawer place than either what Chief Danvers or Chancellor Venham did in what were far more anticipated series. But Foster is certain to get a nomination for Best Actress in a Limited Series and despite the decided mixed reception for The Regime (it ranks a full point lower on imdb.com then Mary & George does) Kate Winslet very well might anyway. Perhaps that’s not surprising considering that it shows how Moore’s work is viewed. Restraint always gets less recognized under showiness — even when that restraint is hiding something far deeper beneath the surface.

My Score: 4.25 stars.



David B Morris

After years of laboring for love in my blog on TV, I have decided to expand my horizons by blogging about my great love to a new and hopefully wider field.