India Amarteifio Source: Netflix

Review: 'Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story' Uncovers Intrigue, Origins

Kilian Melloy READ TIME: 4 MIN.

Shonda Rhimes' six-episode "Bridgerton" spinoff, "Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story," explores the origin story of the show's semi-fictional wife of King George III, Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, flashing back some decades to her marriage to George in 1761 but returning often to England's Regency.

There's a "Great Experiment" underway as Charlotte's (India Amarteifio) nuptials to the young King George (Corey Mylchreest) are arranged by George's ferocious mother, Princess Augusta (Michelle Fairley). Nobles of color are being recognized with titles and, with a little goosing here and there (from Charlotte's friend Lady Agatha Danbury [Arsema Thomas], wife of a nobleman from Sierra Leone), also with estates. Charlotte herself is a woman of color; her brother (Tunji Kasim) agrees to the marriage in order that his duchy might enjoy the protection of the mighty British Empire.

Charlotte, a spirited 19-year-old, is reluctant to be married off... until, that is, she meets her groom-to-be (in a scene, it must be said, worthy of a meet cute from a 1940s screwball comedy). But when George – so charming, and yet so mercurial – seems to be avoiding marital life and its attendant duties, Charlotte becomes increasingly infuriated. She's not alone; Princess Agatha, too, is growing impatient, knowing as she does that the monarchy needs to produce an heir in short order.

This is the same King George who is the subject of Nicholas Hytner's 1994 film "The Madness of King George," and the physician Francis Willis, played by Ian Holm in that movie, is cast here with Rob Maloney as the otherwise-nameless Royal Doctor, whose methods of dealing with George's "spells" verge on the sadistic.

As Charlotte and George work through the same sorts of misunderstandings and bruised feelings that propel "Bridgerton," their respective personal attendants – Brimsley (Sam Clemmett) sees to Charlotte, and Reynolds (Freddie Dennis) to George – slowly start to coordinate their efforts so as to best serve the monarchy. Brimsley and Reynolds are also lovers, which throws some delightful gay scenes into the mix, along with more romantic tension.

The more things change, the more they stay the same, as, decades later, Queen Charlotte (Golda Rosheuvel) presses her children – 13 of them having survived to adulthood – to marry and procreate, again in order to ensure the propagation of the monarchy's bloodline. The situation has a tragic tinge – the one legitimate baby out of more than 50 children the kids have produced has just died – but Queen Charlotte, focused on realpolitik, has little time for sentiment. "Sorrow," she offers, when her bereaved son bursts into tears of grief for his daughter, and, "Prayers." Her brisk expressions of sympathy carry all the sincerity of the NRA and pro-gun politicians after any given mass shooting, and you have to wonder if the specific phrasing of Charlotte's quick, businesslike condolences are intended to bring just that to mind. Indeed, at one point, Charlotte's lack of warmth and impatience in proclaiming the words has a ghastly comedic effect, funny and horrifying in equal measure.

It wouldn't be out of place for the show to include such nods to current affairs. When Charlotte does become pregnant with her first child, Agatha lets her know – in a chilly, and chilling, exchange – that she's not free to travel home to Mecklenburg-Strelitz, which lies in Germany; crossing the border in her condition would be kidnapping a royal heir, and amount to treason. "Your body is not your own," Charlotte is told, and the directness of the statement is enough to make one flinch in our post-Roe world.

As "Bridgerton" does, the show treats such anachronistic touches with overt deliberateness. There are throwback remixes of contemporary pop tunes; there are turns of phrase you can't imagine were in common use in 18th-century England; and the very notion of a young woman as self-possessed and forceful as Charlotte winning her king's heart because of (rather than in spite of) those qualities in a crushingly patriarchal society seems a fairytale at best.

The alternate-history idea of "The Great Experiment" is also bold and modern – and it does the job it's probably intended to do: It makes you take notice of issues around racism and racial inequality in new and strikingly different ways, in part because the equality being discussed is so rooted in economic inequality. Should nobles of color, having just been recognized, be allowed to pass their titles and lands down to their children, just as white nobles do (complete with an equal exploitation of the country's underclass of working poor)? The resonance with today is unmistakeable, but at the same time you can't help recalling that the historic Charlotte was friendly with Marie Antoinette, and nodding at the irony.

Still, as a work of escapist costume porn and romantic intrigue, layered with some serious social commentary around gender and race issues, "Queen Charlotte" is as sharply written and handsomely produced as "Bridgerton" itself, and as the episodes progress India Amarteifio does a miraculous job of showing us how her character is evolving toward who'll she be years in the future. There are moments when her face takes on the expressions of Rosheuvel's older queen, and you feel her turning into that more mature version of the character. It's uncanny.

Gratifying, too, is how the miniseries does what a spinoff ideally should: Illuminates the world of the original series in interesting new ways that further deepen the original narrative.

"Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story" premieres on Netflix on May 4.

by Kilian Melloy , EDGE Staff Reporter

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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