Discoveries: “The Tudors”

THE SPECS:

Who: The show is available for streaming on Netflix, Hulu Plus, and Amazon (free streaming to Prime members).  I have not checked iTunes, but it is purchasable at Amazon and is, of course, on DVD and Blu Ray.

What: “The Tudors,” a historical drama covering the reign of King Henry VIII of England–beginning after he has been married for some time to first wife, Catherine of Aragon (and after the birth of his daughter, Mary I), and just as he meets soon-to-be mistress and second wife, Anne Boleyn–and ending with his death.

When: The show aired in its entirety from 2007-2010 on Showtime.

Where: The show is set in England during the reign of King Henry VIII (primarily the sixteenth century).

Why: Henry Cavill, who plays the Duke of Suffolk, Charles Brandon, long-time adviser and friend to the King, is the new Superman in the recently released film “Man of Steel.”  I had to check out his previous work.  Also, I am an Anglophile with a general interest in all things Britain, including its history.

How – as in How Was It?  I rated the show four out of five stars, as the writing was occasionally questionable, the historical inaccuracies were held secondary to dramatic effect, and as the performances of some of the cast of characters were uneven.  I gave it four stars because of the production values (the costuming and art direction are exquisite), the musical scoring, and the impassioned and charismatic performance of Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Henry.

SYNOPSIS

The span of the series follows King Henry VIII’s reign and marriages, as he begins to seek division from the papacy in Rome in order to declare his marriage to Catherine of Aragon (Maria Doyle Kennedy) null on the grounds that his conscience is plagued by guilt that he married his brother, Arthur’s, wife (he died before they consummated their marriage).  In reality, Henry becomes obsessed with the fact that he has no son to inherit the throne, and Catherine is unable to bear additional children, not that Henry appears to be game to try.  What’s more, and particularly as it is framed in this series, Henry is as much held in thrall by court politics as he makes them, and ambitious families, in particular the Boleyns, who seek greater wealth and prestige, machinate for eldest daughter Anne (Natalie Dormer) to court Henry’s affections, which she does successfully.  Henry, meanwhile, is enabled by conservative advisers, including his longtime friend, the Duke of Suffolk (Cavill), while questioned by others, including philosopher Thomas More (Jeremy Northam).

The first two seasons examine the beginning of the English Protestant Reformation as Henry declares himself head of the Church of England in opposition to the Pope, with Sam Neill playing the King’s chancellor, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. The latter two seasons cover Henry’s remaining marriages to Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves (Joss Stone), Catherine Howard, and Catherine Parr (Joely Richardson); the changeable controversy surrounding the line of succession of his three children (Mary, Elizabeth I, and Edward VI); as well as the ongoing political, religious, and public health strife prevalent during his reign.

THOUGHTS

“The Tudors” is like a beautiful train wreck.  There are so many ways to pick this show apart, and yet, because Henry VIII’s court becomes a sexy soap opera of bed chamber Olympics and political cat-and-mouse antics around a truly egotistical king at the hands of the show’s producers, one can’t help but watch it all unfold.  To the writers’ credit, what “The Tudors” accurately teaches the viewer about history is that Henry VIII was a charismatic ruler who wielded too much power, often times at the whim of his own misplaced self-love.  Yet, as with all dramatic interpretations of actual events, the accuracy of the piece becomes a forgotten afterthought.

Probably the most laughable piece of made-for-television gloss-over is the fact that in all of the show’s four seasons, the king never becomes the bulbous tower of obesity that even his most stately portraits show of his latter years.  While Rhys Meyers infuses his portrayal of the king with a charisma that renders his Henry somewhat more sympathetic than the real life historical figure, this key piece of dramatic license undercuts much of the last season, particularly during the marriage of young Catherine Howard, the fifth wife and queen beheaded for adultery and licentious activities of her past.  There is no reason to believe, even in the silly hysterical youth characterizing Tamzin Merchant’s depiction of the character, that the young queen consort would so willingly take up with the King’s groom, considering that Henry still meets her in her bed chambers and showers her with lavish gifts; in real life, she was married too young to an old fat king (and his obesity was brought on, by all accounts, by the fact of his leg injury rendering him virtually immobile).  In the later seasons, Rhys Meyers does not even look like the portraiture of the actual king.

Chronologies are also toyed with, such that anyone with even a passing, Wikipedia-infused, scholarly interest in the Tudor dynasty might take offense. The death of the King’s illegitimate son Henry Fitzroy (season 1); the chronology of his sister’s death and the death of Cardinal Wolsey; the fact that Wolsey’s death is depicted as suicide (a plausible but largely debased theory); the prominence of the Duke of Suffolk in all regal matters (he wasn’t that involved); and so on. While the writers and the producers have the luxury of poor preservation of details over 500 years to make some guesswork of it, and while they were loyal to some of the most famous accounts, whether proven accurate or suspect, many of the facts are conveniently rearranged for the drama.  While such rearrangements are to be expected in any adaptation, they ring false when attached to the depiction of such a famous monarch and undercut suspension of disbelief during viewing of the entire series.

Nevertheless, “The Tudors” is compelling television, insofar as Rhys Meyers is the primary reason to watch.  He commits to his famous role with obvious zeal and a truly method immersion in the steeped and storied history of such a game-changing monarch.  He imbues his character with the pomp, audacity, and passion that this king must naturally have had, particularly in his lustful pursuits of wives to bear him sons.  None of the supporting characters or actors stand out as much as he does, including the highly attractive but disappointingly wooden Cavill, though Dormer’s portrayal of Anne Boleyn, the most interesting of all of Henry’s wives, arguably, is both layered and complex.  The layers and complexity are not, on their face, good qualities necessarily; she performed the role, as written, admirably, but the depiction of her family and her mixed motivations for pursuing the king, without much historical basis in fact, detract from sympathy for her, when she and Catherine of Aragon may have been the most sympathetic of all of Henry’s wives in how each were treated by him.  In fact, the most believable and, therefore, impressive performances of the six women who became queen were from Stone in her brief appearance as charming Anne of Cleves and Richardson as Catherine Parr, Henry’s most enduring wife (and the one who survived his death).  Parr’s role as a potential Protestant reformer, beyond Henry’s odd devotion to Catholic precepts in lieu of declaring himself head of the Church of England, and her subsequent need to negotiate her own survival in the face of actions of some of the king’s advisers, was flushed out in an interesting way.

The greatest success of The Tudors really stems from the production values – the use of locales, the art direction and set direction, the costuming (though some history buffs will no doubt pick apart the accuracy of some of the clothing), and the score.  The visual presentation of the Tudors was lush and filled with the opulence of royalty, from candlelit parties at court to pretty sitting rooms of queens and the bedchambers of the King. Even the French battlefields of the final season contained a certain picturesqueness.  The music underscoring it all infused emotional tones and heightened the drama when, perhaps, some of the performances were not equal to the task.

What the “The Tudors” did best, however, was tell the story, however loosely, of a famous king who did as he pleased.  He defied a powerful church, he asserted his absolute dominance over his realm, he married whomever he liked, he executed whomever he deemed necessary to execute, and he relied on advisers of varying frankness – some who met terrible ends when their services displeased their master and some who managed to dance a precarious dance around a whimsical ego.  Rhys Meyers also deftly showed how Henry aged from a young, lion-like monarch, filled with passion and lust, to an old, limping King who was forced to regularly face his weaknesses, much of which stemmed from his famous jousting injury, while betraying none of them.

“The Tudors” is a ultimately an interesting and watchable show – though perhaps not fairly named, considering that the only Tudor given full attention is Henry himself. It might have been more interesting to develop seasons based around the reigns of his children, particularly since the producers took such specific care to develop the character of Mary I, in the future known as “Bloody Mary.”  The program certainly captures and holds the attention, anyway, whether it is truly deserving of that attention or not.  Despite its obvious flaws, the show is still an entertaining piece of television that will engage the viewer and some viewers more than others.

RECOMMENDATION

This show is highly recommended to anyone interested in British history, historical fiction, or the Tudor dynasty–or sex, as the show regularly features nudity and sexual situations.  To lovers of the former, though, it is best that the viewing experience be taken with a grain of salt.  In addition, the show contains some strong language and some violence.  It would probably be rated “MA” for “Mature Audiences” on network television or “R” in the movie theaters.

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