'The Serpent Queen' review: Samantha Morton drama lives in the shadow of its contemporaries

·4 min read
Catherine de Medici (Samantha Morton) in The Serpent Queen (Starzplay)
Catherine de Medici (Samantha Morton) in The Serpent Queen (Starzplay)

For audiences keen on rabble-rousing historical romps, jam-packed with political intrigue and copious coupling The Serpent Queen — which launches on Starzplay from 11 September — might just make a few watch lists.

Adapted from Leonie Frieda’s book Catherine de Medici: Rennaissance Queen of France, it charts the rise of Catherine (Samantha Morton) through the ranks of society as she becomes Queen of France.

Writer-producer Justin Haythe (Red Sparrow) is behind this historical drama which tries so hard to replicate the success of Hulu's award-winning The Great, yet consistently misses the mark for a variety of reasons. Not least of which is the absence of Oscar-nominated screenwriter Tony McNamara (The Favourite), to whip The Serpent Queen into shape.

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With a revered cast in Samantha Morton (She Said) and Charles Dance (The Sandman) amongst others, this must have sounded like an easy win on paper. Having so successfully adapted the exploits of Catherine the Great into a serialised dramedy, someone somewhere clearly felt this formula could be applied to anyone in history with minimal fuss.

Young Catherine De Medici (Liv Hill) in The Serpent Queen (Starzplay)
Young Catherine De Medici (Liv Hill) in The Serpent Queen (Starzplay)

However, The Great succeeded primarily through the casting of Elle Fanning and Nicholas Hoult in conjunction with those scripts. Where Tony McNamara consistently balanced historical accuracy with some killer comedy moments, which in turn fed directly into character motivations. Where The Serpent Queen first goes awry, at least in its first three episodes, comes down to an absence of that chemistry.

Headliner Samantha Morton may be present briefly in the opening and closing minutes of each episode, yet any heavy lifting beyond that is left to others. As much as Liv Hill works hard in flashback to carry this series, she lacks presence and often gets overshadowed by more experienced members of the ensemble as a younger incarnation.

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Dauphin Francois is heartless, manipulative and callous, while his younger brother is more considered and cautious in displaying his emotions openly. As the series continues and Dauphin diminishes any favour he may have held with their father through thoughtless actions, one son is lauded while the other finds himself isolated and ostracised as punishment.t self-awareness of this series, The Serpent Queen feels perpetually overshadowed by its contemporary at every turn.

Pope Clement (Charles Dance) in The Serpent Queen (Starzplay)
Pope Clement (Charles Dance) in The Serpent Queen (Starzplay)

With many of the more obscure political manoeuvres between Italy and France pivotal to understanding Catherine’s journey, audiences may also feel this is more history lesson than dramatic diversion. It also creates a problem where much of the circumstantial humour misses the mark, leaving audiences struggling with an overly earnest drama which fails to bring the funny.

Stand out performances besides Morton and Dance include Alex Heath as young Henry, second in line to the French throne, plus Louis Landau as Dauphin Francois who is set to inherit it ahead of his brother. As studies of the insidious affect power can have on a person, both Heath and Landau do well in garnering empathy and apathy in equal measure.

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Dauphin Francois is heartless, manipulative and callous, while his younger brother is more considered and cautious in displaying his emotions openly. As the series continues and Dauphin diminishes any favour he may have held with their father through thoughtless actions, one son is lauded while the other finds himself isolated and ostracized as punishment.

Diane de Poitiers (Ludvine Sagnier) in The Serpent Queen (Starzplay)
Diane de Poitiers (Ludvine Sagnier) in The Serpent Queen (Starzplay)

Elsewhere, it is the ongoing competition and jealousy between young Catherine and Diane de Poitiers, which maintains dramatic momentum for a majority of The Serpent Queen. As martial bargaining chip and older mistress in waiting, their plotting in those opening episodes provides this show with some genuine high points. Ludivine Sagnier is excellent as the more experienced lover to Henri, who instinctively blocks Catherine’s advances on him, while preparing herself for ascension to the throne.

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Other stand outs include Kiruna Stamell, who makes up for her diminutive stature by imbuing Mathilde with an understated dignity. In her scenes one on one with Louis Landau, both actors work hard to give their connection a realism, which is so tragically disregarded by this would-be King further down the line.

Catherine de Medici (Samantha Morton) in The Serpent Queen (Starzplay)
Catherine de Medici (Samantha Morton) in The Serpent Queen (Starzplay)

Aside from those brief moments of pathos, which are also underpinned with some inventive character introductions, The Serpent Queen succeeds in conjuring an authentic ambience. The finery of sixteenth century France is realised through a combination of seamless visual effects and strategic set dressing, transporting audiences back to a time where women were traded like trinkets for lands and title, and where people were slaughtered to appease tyrants.

Unfortunately, these highlights into terms of character and ambience are unable to supersede something more fundamental — The Serpent Queen is simply not on par with its Emmy nominated contemporary, despite the best efforts of all involved.

The Serpent Queen streams on Starzplay from 11 September, with new episodes weekly on Sundays. Watch a trailer below.