As soon as I saw the text "Written by Jimmy McGovern" flash up on the promos, I knew that this would be something special. Having watched the first season of McGovern's "Cracker" I knew that this would be history with true grit, venomous dialogue, and buckets of conflict. I wasn't disappointed.
Judging by the other comments some people found McGovern's style too harsh, that he belittles the both Royal family and the Protestant and Catholic branches of church, and overuses sex and violence. It's a fair criticism, but so many over-starched interpretations of British history have been made that this gritty drama becomes a breath of fresh air.
The show is evenly divided into two parts, both riveting stories. The first is the reign of Queen Mary I of Scotland, a French Catholic girl now ruling over Protestant Scotland. Clemence Poesy turns in a brilliant performance as the young queen faced with her conniving half-brother Lord James, Queen Elizabeth I of England, her misogynistic husband Lord Darnley, and her brash suitor the Lord Bothwell. The whole story is turbulent, as a state of war with the English gradually precipitates.
The second part is much higher drama, though. It is concerned with Mary's son James I, a repugnant, bitter cripple, who promises the Catholics tolerance, and then reneges on his promise at the behest of the manipulative Lord Cecil, one of the most powerful men in England. This proves the catalyst for the famous attempted bombing of the houses of parliament on November 5, lead by the ruthless Spaniard Guy Fawkes.
It is true that McGovern revolves the entire show about the us-and-them viewpoint of the Catholic and Protestant, BUT this works to great effect. Emphasising the conflict in this war really ups the ante for the drama, making for some very high-octane television. Add to this brilliant performances by Robert Carlyle, Tim McInnerny, Kevin McKidd, Sam Troughton, and Michael Fassbender (Playing Guy Fawkes as a silent Clint Eastwood type delightfully)
This is, without a doubt, the greatest telemovie I've ever seen. However, if you're at all squeamish this definitely isn't for you: this is history with the filthy bits left in for a change...
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