If you’ve been tuning into Starz lately, you already know that the network knows how to craft compelling period pieces. The network masters everything from costumes and makeup to the scenery and the actors portraying fascinating and oftentimes historical characters.
Recently there was Gaslit, a passionate and well-executed modern take on the Watergate scandal as seen through an unlikely observer, Martha Mitchell (played by Julia Roberts). Mitchell, if you recall or are Google-ready, went against the grain to condemn President Nixon’s actions back in the 1970s. Roberts and costar Sean Penn, both brilliant on screen, were snubbed by the Emmys, but the limited series landed four Emmy nods. Other shows like P-Valley and Becoming Elizabeth offer inventive spins on women in power — or those trying to get there. Dramedies (Run the World) and sci-fi (Outlander) offer a vibrant viewing, too.
Enter: The Serpent Queen, which hit Starz and its streaming universe on Sept. 11. This is a queen to watch. Wickedly fun, thoroughly inventive, and bound to become addictive viewing, The Serpent Queen is royal filmmaking at its finest.
The Serpent Queen is Destined to be a Hit
The Serpent Queen tells the story of Catherine de Medici (played here by Liv Hill and Oscar-nominee Samantha Morton) who, against all odds, became one of the most powerful and longest-serving rulers in French history. Catherine’s story unravels via flashbacks. As played by Morton in Catherine’s later years, she seems to be defending her actions, revealing the lessons she’s learned to a new servant girl, Rahima (Sennia Nanua).
As we float back and forth through time, we learn that 14-year-old orphaned Catherine (Hill, simply remarkable here) married into the 16th-century French court, despite her commoner status. Her uncle, Pope Clement (Charles Dance in rare form) had a hand in that, negotiating a large dowry and a groovy geopolitical alliance in return for Catherine’s hand in marriage to Young Prince Henri (Suspicion’s Alex Heath). Heirs are in order, you see. A brooding King Francis (Colm Meany) wouldn’t have it any other way.
The twist? Henri is in love with Diane de Poitiers (Ludivine Sagnier, as savage and believable as ever), a shrewd lady-in-waiting twice his age. Catherine learns all too quickly who she can trust while trying to outmaneuver anybody who underestimates her determination. The young gal must survive — no matter the cost.
Hill is perfectly cast as Young Catherine. The Jellyfish and Little Stranger actress perfectly captures the young queen’s vulnerability and grit. Early on, when she meets with Pope Clement, she’s ordered to fetch the man wine. “It’s a shame you didn’t inherit your mother’s looks,” the pope muses to his niece. To which Hill breaks the fourth wall, offers a side look directly into the camera, and proceeds to spit into the wine.
What fun is this? Seems we are Catherine’s audience in her past, the servant girl years later. Either way, writer and executive producer Justin Haythe (Revolutionary Road, Red Sparrow, The Lone Ranger), wants us to witness Catherine’s journey and, perhaps, assess for ourselves—as the series’ tagline goes—what we would have done differently.
Haythe’s retelling — tight, sharp, inspired — is based on Leonie Frieda’s book “Catherine de Medici: Renaissance Queen of France.” Along for the ride on the production side is Erwin Stoff (The Matrix, 13 Hours, Edge of Tomorrow) and Francis Lawrence (The Hunger Games films). If you’re a fan of their films, take note: they bring stellar production value to The Serpent Queen. It’s one of the most lavish, fully imagined series to come along in a while, hitting just the right beats, knowing when not to be overbearing.
Samantha Morton is Downright Mesmerizing
The Serpent Queen is dubbed a historical drama with an edge. A lot of that comes from the creative end, but Samantha Morton delivers that “edge”—in spades. The actress commands the screen, delivering a pitch-perfect, award-worthy performance to relish. Somebody give the woman an Emmy.
The series alludes to Catherine’s “visions” occasionally, and we’re led to believe she’s tapped into mysticism or simply deeply esoteric, pondering her fate — or plotting to outmaneuver it. Fortunately, the writers don’t go overboard with that. In fact, for a series about a determined, villainous queen who’d stop at nothing to have her way, it’s surprisingly grounded. Again — Morton’s doing for the most part. She’s mastered the art of saying everything by saying nothing. Her cold stares. Her stoic presentation.
These are most effective when Morton plays opposite Sagnier — as Diane de Poitiers. Diane wants Henri through and through and can be a manipulative soul. Morton infuses Catherine with a steely resolve, stuffing whatever discomfort she may have, and goes about the task of later redirecting the course of her fate. Six episodes in, having already witnessed trickery, subterfuge, and suspicions of poisoning people — Catherine faces yet another major turning point. Haythe puts on his director’s cap for an episode titled “The Last Joust,” which is a winner from beginning to end, showcasing Morton in some of her best moments.
The series does a wonderful job, too, of illuminating the men in all their various forms of baboonery and patriarchal entitlement. We have King Francis and Pope Clement, of course — foul, insistent, plotting. But in François de Guise (Raza Jaffrey) and Charles Guise (Ray Panthaki), two members of the King’s court, we’re given glimpses of how men had to keep the patriarchal machine running. Danny Kirrane stands out as Louis de Bourbon, who has a vested interest in controlling the king’s financial interests so long as they benefit him, his family, and his country. Never have we witnessed an actor, scene after scene, consume so much food, effectively capturing the indulgence of the era and the men who never seem satisfied.
Speaking of… Lee Ingleby offers a compelling performance as older Prince Henri, still riddled with low self-esteem and torn between his duties and his entanglement with Diane. Ingleby effectively captures a king who never fits quite firmly into his own shoes.
A bevy of other things stand out in the series — costumes, elaborate sets, breathtaking cinematography, an all-star cast who are consistently on the mark—but one should mention the exceptional ferocity of Kiruna Stamell. As the queen’s confidant, Mathilde, she lights up the screen whenever she appears in a scene. Let’s see more of this fine actress, please. And pay attention to Mary Queen of Scots (Antonia Clarke), the queen’s daughter-in-law — a showdown waiting to happen.
Bottom line: The Serpent Queen is a bold spectacle, perfect for our times. As breathtaking as it is wondrous, it’s a joy to behold.
The Serpent Queen premiered globally Sunday, Sept 11, on the STARZ app, and all STARZ streaming and on-demand platforms.