There’s plenty of blood-and-guts in writer Jimmy McGovern’s beautiful and brutal telling of the turbulent reigns of mother-and-son Scottish monarchs Mary, Queen of Scots and King James VI of Scotland, who would go on to become King James I of England. And there is plotting aplenty as the pair struggle to take control of England, shrewdly manipulating the sectarian divide between Catholics and Protestants.
he BBC is a master at staging costume dramas, but it is unlikely so much blood has been spilled in the good name of historical drama, with even a graphic scene of a Catholic priest being hanged, drawn and quartered as well as numerous stabbings, shootings, more hangings and more torture.
The drama is neatly split between the two scheming monarchs.
The first section — consisting of the first two parts shown consecutively on a Sunday night — deals with the arrival of the young Mary (played by newcomer Clemence Poesy) from exile in France to take over the Scottish throne. With her French accent and Italian adviser, she confuses and annoys the tough Scottish lords but is shrewd enough to marry the important English Lord Darnley (Paul Nicholls) and then have him swiftly slaughtered by her lover, Bothwell (Kevin McKidd) once he has fathered her child.
The second section opens with a crippled and bisexual James (Robert Carlyle) consenting to the beheading of his own mother before taking over the English throne on the death of Queen Elizabeth I. He conspires against Parliament while growing to love his Danish queen (Sira Stampe), while at the same time Catholic plotters led by Guy Fawkes (Michael Fassbender) plan to blow up Parliament — and the king — by smuggling gunpowder into the cellars below the building. The plotters are discovered and the leaders executed.
In the Mary, Queen of Scots section, Mary has to prove her intelligence and determination to find a way to take the English throne. Poesy gives a fine performance, with excellent support from McKidd (showing a great deal of growth as a performer since “Trainspotting”) as the raging, lusty and loyal Bothwell.
In the James I section, Carlyle (another of the “Trainspotting” gang) plays James with a foot-dragging limp and misogynistic fervor — a paranoid would-be dictator who grows to depend on his unhappy queen and orders killings without a thought.
A subplot that features Lady Margaret (Emilia Fox) betraying the Catholic plotters to Cecil (Tim McInnerny) seems unnecessary, and while McInnerny is excellent, it is hard not to be reminded of his performance as the gormless Lord Percy in the BBC comedy series “Blackadder II,” also set in Elizabethan times.
McGovern (who wrote the original “Cracker” detective series) smartly tells the complex historical backstory with panache, while slipping in a brutal slaying at least every 10 minutes and taking the customary liberties in terms of moving dates around.
Direction by Scot Gillies MacKinon is on the button, with an emphasis on moody interiors rather than broad vistas, which assists the underlying sense of scheming.
There are subtle parallels in terms of the climactic attempt to blow up Parliament and contemporary terrorism, but these are not dwelled on.