For an audience keen on riotous historical romp packed with political intrigue and extensive coupling The Snake Queen — which launches on Starzplay on September 11th — might just make a few watchlists.
Based on the book by Leonie Frieda Catherine de Medici: Renaissance Queen of Franceit traces the rise of Catherine (Samantha Morton) through the ranks of society as she becomes Queen of France.
Writer and Producer Justin Haythe (Red Sparrow) is behind this historical drama that tries so hard to repeat the success of the award-winning Hulu The great, but keeps missing the target for various reasons. Last but not least, the absence of Oscar-nominated screenwriter Tony McNamara (The favourite), to whip The Snake Queen in shape.
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With a respected cast in Samantha Morton (she said) and Charles Dance (The Sandman) this must have sounded like an easy win on paper. After adapting the exploits of so successfully Katharina the great Turning it into a dramedy series, someone somewhere clearly felt that this formula could be applied to anyone in the story with minimal effort.
However, The great succeeded primarily by casting Elle Fanning and Nicholas Hoult in conjunction with these scripts. Where Tony McNamara consistently balanced historical accuracy with some killer comedy moments, which in turn fed directly into the characters’ motivations. Where The Snake Queen First goes skewed, at least for the first three episodes, boils down to the lack of that chemistry.
Headliner Samantha Morton may be present briefly during the opening and closing minutes of each episode, but the heavy lifting beyond that is left to others. As much as Liv Hill works hard in flashbacks to carry this series, she lacks presence and is often 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 considerate and cautious about showing his feelings openly. As the series continues and Dauphin’s thoughtless actions belittle any favor he may have done her father, one son is praised while the other is isolated and ostracized as punishment. The Snake Queen feels overshadowed by his contemporaries at every turn.
As many of the more obscure political maneuverings between Italy and France are crucial to understanding Catherine’s journey, audiences may also feel that this is more of a history lesson than a dramatic distraction. It also creates a problem where much of the awkward humor misses the mark, leaving audiences grappling with overly serious drama that doesn’t deliver the funny.
Standout performances alongside Morton and Dance include Alex Heath as young Henry, second in line to the French throne, and Louis Landau as Dauphin Francois, who will inherit him before his brother. As studies of the insidious force of affect a person can have, Heath and Landau are equally good at collecting empathy and apathy.
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Dauphin Francois is heartless, manipulative, and callous, while his younger brother is more considerate and cautious about showing his feelings openly. As the series continues and Dauphin belittles any favors he had towards her father through thoughtless acts, one son is praised while the other is isolated and ostracized as punishment.
Elsewhere, it’s the ongoing competition and jealousy between young Catherine and Diane de Poitiers that maintains a dramatic dynamic for most of them The Snake Queen. As a martial bargaining chip and an elderly lover on the prowl, her plot in these opening episodes makes for real highlights of the series. Ludivine Sagnier is excellent as Henri’s more experienced mistress, instinctively blocking Catherine’s advances towards him as she prepares to take the throne.
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Other notable figures include Kiruna Stamell, who makes up for her short stature by giving Mathilde an understated dignity. In their one-on-one scenes with Louis Landau, both actors work hard to bring a realism to their connection that is later so tragically disregarded by this wannabe king.
Aside from those brief moments of pathos, which are also backed up with some original character introductions, The Snake Queen succeeds in conjuring up an authentic ambience. The splendor of 16th-century France is realized through a combination of seamless visual effects and strategic set design, transporting audiences back to a time when women were traded like trinkets for lands and titles, and people were slaughtered to become tyrants soothe.
Unfortunately, these highlights cannot replace something more basic in terms of character and ambience – The Snake Queen despite the best efforts of everyone involved, simply can’t keep up with his Emmy-nominated contemporaries.
The Snake Queen Streams on Starzplay starting September 11th, with new episodes weekly on Sundays. Check out a trailer below.