'Reign' review: Romantic fiction only enhances history
You don't want to miss this one.
A brief history of "Reign"
Set in the mid-16th century, "Reign" focuses on the Scottish Queen Mary ( Adelaide Kane) during her teen years at the French court. A ruler since she was only 6 days old, Mary is expected to marry the heir to the French monarchy, Francis ( Toby Regbo). Although the show (fortunately) only skirts around the issue, the basis for all of this is both standard dynastic alliances and a desire to uphold Catholicism in the face of expansionist and Protestant policies in England.
Mary is expected to save herself for Francis, of course, but there are a few bumps along the road. One major bump is Sebastian, also called Bash ( Torrance Coombs), the king's illegitimate son via his beloved mistress, Diane de Poitiers. Also, Francis is happily making love to a young court lady and isn't much interested in his future bride.
Then there's the very disapproving queen of France, Catherine ( Megan Follows). An Italian woman from the super-wealthy Medici family, Catherine relies on Nostradamus ( Rossif Sutherland) and her sons to secure her own position. The powerful Mary -- who technically owns a whole country -- is a threat to that.
Add in four teenage ladies in waiting ( Anna Popplewell, Caitlin Stasey, Celina Sinden and Jenessa Grant), a faceless girl who warns Mary against plots and some creepy thing off in the woods, and you've got "Reign" in a nutshell.
The old and the new
One of the most interesting things about "Reign" is the way in which the show weaves together seemingly different motifs and themes to make a beautiful view of late medieval France. While the costumes are gorgeous and look straight out of a Renaissance Fair, they actually are a combination of 15th-century style and modern influences.
Similarly, the music of "Reign" sticks decidedly to the modern. Think "Moulin Rouge" if you want a film comparison that managed a similar effect.
And then there's the obvious love triangle between Mary, Francis and Bash. Although Sebastian is a fictional character, created for the show, this is certainly something that could have happened back in the day. Either way, anyone who watches The CW knows love triangles are everywhere on that network.
Two queens, two incredible performances
While all of the acting in "Reign" is solid, special attention has to go to the two queens, Mary and Catherine. Kane's Mary is naive and sweet most of the time, only taking a practical stance on running her own life when necessary. She's every inch a queen too -- no one gets away with nonsense in Mary's presence. The show could have gone with a simpering beauty here or with a thoroughly modern heroine. Instead, Adelaide Kane is appealing as a young and optimistic girl who has spent her whole life in over her head.
That said, Mary has nothing on Queen Catherine. Megan Follows (best known for playing the title role in "Anne of Green Gables") makes Catherine totally the one to watch in "Reign." She is a betrayed and often humiliated woman, but she still makes sure that no one can ever take advantage. Pride, desperate love for her son and an almost tragic vulnerability are obvious in every word, every plot and every action.
History vs. "Reign"
Some people don't buy into the idea of historical fiction, not when it comes to "Reign." There are scathing reviews of the show out there that complain when Mary's life gets entangled in a CW-friendly romance. The main bones of contention seem to be that a) "Reign" does not follow the admittedly fascinating history of Mary and b) by throwing in romance and modern music, viewers will never understand the reality of the era.
To them I say, who cares?
If "Reign" had any aspirations to be a history documentary, criticism like this would have a point. As it is, why does it matter that the story fails to stick to the textbook history of Queen Mary's time? Yes, her life was fascinating as it was, but even Mary, Queen of Scots can have a little romance, right?
There is also a fascinating bias when it comes to this particular historical drama versus all of the other period pieces on television. Historical accuracy wasn't seen as a big issue when applied to, for example, "The Tudors" (a show set only a few years before "Reign"). And does anyone really think "Da Vinci's Demons" is an accurate reflection on reality? "Vikings," "The Borgias" and even the adored "Downton Abbey" share in this historical inaccuracy.
Fans of these shows are cool with that. Those that care about history can find resources for the facts. The rest of the viewers can simply enjoy the setting and feel of a bygone era, engaging in a bit of fantasy for an hour each week. Nothing is hurt by this.
I say all of this as a history buff and as a trained and credentialed historian (with a PhD in the field) of the medieval and Renaissance periods. If anyone should be complaining about historical inaccuracy, it should be me. I'm not.
Instead, the historical fiction only makes me appreciate "Reign" more: This joyful look into the past makes the dullest of facts come alive.
"Reign" airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. on The CW.