The art of making cruelty look sexy

Last updated 12:01 05/12/2013
WILD AT HEART: Reign depicts romantic anguish, fiendish plots and grisly killings.

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Reign Prime, Thursday, 9.30pm.

Reign is the latest product of the history-as-told-by-beautiful-people school, which has already given us The Tudors and The Borgias.

Mary, Queen of Scots is the subject this time, but the style remains the same, with life among the ancient aristocracy depicted as a blend of romantic anguish, fiendish plots and grisly killings.

The focus is on Mary's early years in France, rather than the tragic conclusion to her life, and if you've seen The Tudors, you'll know what to expect - swordplay, torture, spooky dungeons and forests, a bit of shagging, and no historically accurate unwashed bodies or rotting teeth to spoil the illusions of grandeur.

The teenage Mary is awaiting her marriage to Francis, the crown prince of France. After being shut up in a convent for years, it's no wonder she's hankering for a bit of action, but the road to the throne is a dangerous one.

To complicate matters, Francis's half-brother is keen on her as well. Meanwhile, Mary's Scottish handmaidens Lola, Kenna, Greer and Aylee - who look like models, despite having names like a quartet of Glasgow bar-crawlers - are on the hunt for handsome gentlemen of their own.

All sorts of power plays and plots are going on, of course. Francis's mother Queen Catherine wants to prevent the nuptials, because of a dire premonition from none other than Nostradamus. And Mary and her minders have already foiled assassination plots by those dastardly English, as well as the 16th-century equivalent of a Roast Buster and his drugged wine.

The Tudors made Henry VIII look young, slim and smouldering until just a few years before his death, even if it didn't flinch from unpleasant details like his foul temper and chronic leg ulcers, and Reign is in the same vein. The cast look like they've been plucked from a modelling agency's books, with several familiar faces from The Tudors, plus Caitlin Stasey from Tomorrow, When the War Began as Kenna, and Anna Popplewell from the Narnia films as Lola.

The production design and cinematography are straight out of music video land, including Mary and Francis meeting amid a slow-motion cloud of falling feathers, and courtiers dancing to 21st-century folk-pop, a la A Knight's Tale. Even Nostradamus is depicted as a 20-something hunk rather than the gout-ridden middle-aged crank he really was.

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Reign should play OK to a younger audience, but the really interesting stuff in Mary's life - mysterious murder and scandal, and conflict with Good Queen Bess - happened later in her life, and back in Scotland. If it encourages young viewers to develop an interest in history, all well and good, but I can't help wondering who's going to be next for the Tudors treatment.

How about Genghis Khan: The Early Years, with the young conqueror cavorting with his concubines as his armies drown city after city in a sea of fire and blood, or while he's watching prisoners being boiled to death in giant cauldrons? Welcome to the new breed of period drama - even if it bears little relation to reality, it manages to make cruelty and insecurity look luxuriant and sexy.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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