For the audience passionate about historical comedies that arouse rabble, overflowing with political intrigues and copious pairings The Serpent Queen – which will be launched on Starzplay from 11 September – could only make a few watch lists.
Adapted from the book by Leonie Frieda Caterina de ‘Medici: Renaissance queen of Francetracks Catherine’s (Samantha Morton) rise in the ranks of society as she becomes Queen of France.
Writer-producer Justin Haythe (red sparrow) is at the basis of this historical drama which it tries so hard to replicate the success of the award-winning Hulu The great, but constantly misses the mark for a variety of reasons. Last but not least is the absence of Oscar-nominated screenwriter Tony McNamara (The favourite), whip The Serpent Queen in shape.
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With a revered cast in Samantha Morton (She said) and Charles Dance (The man of sand), by the way, this must sound like an easy win on paper. Having thus successfully adapted the exploits of Catherine the Great in a serialized drama, someone somewhere clearly felt that this formula could be applied to anyone in history with minimal effort.
However, The great it was successful mainly thanks to the casting of Elle Fanning and Nicholas Hoult along with those screenplays. Where Tony McNamara consistently balanced historical accuracy with some killer comedic moments, which in turn directly fueled the characters’ motivations. Where is it The Serpent Queen first it goes wrong, at least in its first three episodes, it boils down to the absence of that chemistry.
Headliner Samantha Morton may be present briefly in the opening and closing minutes of each episode, but any heavy work beyond that is left to the others. As hard as Liv Hill works in flashbacks to bring this series, she misses her presence and she often gets overshadowed by the more experienced members of the ensemble as the younger incarnation.
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Dauphin Francois is ruthless, manipulative and callous, while his younger brother is more considered and cautious about showing his emotions openly. As the series continues and Dauphin diminishes any favors he may have had with his father through reckless actions, one son is praised while the other finds himself isolated and ostracized as punishment. The self-awareness of this series, The Serpent Queen he feels perpetually obscured by his contemporaneity at every turn.
With many of the darker political maneuvers between Italy and France pivotal to understanding Catherine’s journey, audiences might also think this is more of a history lesson than a dramatic diversion. It also creates an issue where much of the circumstantial humor misses the mark, leaving audiences grappling with overly serious drama that fails to bring the funny.
In addition to Morton and Dance, stand out the performances of Alex Heath as the young Henry, the second in line to the throne of France, plus Louis Landau as Dauphin Francois who will inherit it before his brother. Because studies of insidious affective power can have on a person, both Heath and Landau do well to garner empathy and apathy in equal measure.
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Dauphin Francois is ruthless, manipulative and callous, while his younger brother is more considered and cautious about showing his emotions openly. As the series continues and Dauphin diminishes any favors he may have had with his father through reckless actions, one son is praised while the other finds himself isolated and ostracized as punishment.
Elsewhere, it is the continued competition and jealousy between young Catherine and Diane de Poitiers that maintains dramatic momentum for most The Serpent Queen. As a martial bargaining chip and an older lover waiting, their storyline in those opening episodes provides this show with some authentic highlights. Ludivine Sagnier is excellent as Henri’s most experienced lover, who instinctively blocks Catherine’s advances on him as she prepares for the accession to the throne.
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Other prominent figures include Kiruna Stamell, who compensates for her short stature by giving Mathilde a sober dignity. In his one-on-one scenes with Louis Landau, both actors work hard to give their connection a realism, which is so tragically ignored by this would-be king further down.
Aside from those brief moments of pathos, which are also backed up by some imaginative character introductions, The Serpent Queen manages to create an authentic environment. The sophistication of sixteenth-century France is achieved through a combination of seamless visual effects and strategic scenography, transporting audiences back to a time when women were traded as trinkets for lands and titles, and where people were slaughtered to appease the tyrants.
Unfortunately, these character and setting highlights cannot replace something more fundamental – The Serpent Queen He’s simply not on par with his Emmy-nominated contemporary, despite the best efforts of all involved.
The Serpent Queen streaming on Starzplay starting September 11, with new episodes weekly on Sundays. Watch a trailer below.