Got married to the widow next door, she’s been married seven times before.
When most people think of King Henry VIII, the first thing that comes to mind is that goddam annoying song by Herman’s Hermits. The second thing that comes to mind is the image of a fat slob of a king—dressed in fine clothing, yet holding a chalice full of wine in one hand and a greasy leg of lamb in the other. But, as most historians love pointing out—this image was only valid during the king’s later years. When he first became king, Henry was young and studly. He spent as much time participating in various sports as he did his kingly duties. Plus, he was a sex symbol, and stories of his various romances and affairs were the stuff of British tabloid dreams.
This is the take on Henry seen in Showtime’s The Tudors. The 10-episode The Tudors: The Complete First Season is now on DVD with a four-disc set. It’s the story of a hotheaded king, his court full of shifting alliances, and the woman who he’d be willing to risk his kingdom for.
The persons of the play:
• King Henry VIII (Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Mission: Impossible III), the king of England
• Cardinal Wolsey (Sam Neill, Jurassic Park), the king’s most trusted and loyal advisor…or is he?
• Sir Thomas More (Jeremy Northam, Gosford Park), a writer and humanist who coined the phrase “utopia.” He is a friend to the king and often acts as the king’s conscience.
• Thomas Boleyn (Nick Dunning, Alexander), a newcomer to the king’s court, he quickly become a valued friend to Henry, for more reasons than one.
• Charles Brandon (Henry Cavill, Stardust) and Anthony Knivert (Callum Blue, Dead Like Me), friends of the king—his “entourage,” if you will.
• Queen Katharine of Aragon (Maria Doyle Kennedy, The Commitments), the king’s estranged wife, for they were married more for political reasons than romantic.
• Princess Margaret (Gabrielle Anwar, Scent of a Woman), the king’s sister, doomed to an arraigned marriage with the elderly, decrepit king of Portugal. She only has eyes for the king’s friend Charles, though.
• Anne Boleyn (Natalie Dormer, Casanova), young, feisty, a little sneaky, and unendingly beautiful, she’s a commoner, but she catches Henry’s eye, and he believes she is his one true love. Too bad about the “he’s already married” thing.
What we have here is the latest entry in the always popular “rich people being naughty” genre. This is when we the viewers get inside looks into the lives of the wealthy and privileged, where the characters live impossibly extravagant lifestyles, but ultimately end up making costly, self-destructive decisions that leave them unhappy and/or ruined. And if the characters are royalty, then that’s all the better. Why do these stories have such power over audiences? Is it a wish-fulfillment thing, where the average viewer longs to reside in mansions and palaces? Or is it the opposite, as the viewer secretly smiles with perverse glee as those snobbish aristocrats see their world crumble around them? Either way, The Tudors will provide both decadence and debauchery in equal doses.
For an allegedly micro-budgeted production, The Tudors looks as grand and lush as you’d expect a tale of kings and queens to be. Architecture and fashion during the Tudor period was often sparse, so the visuals have been “pushed forward,” according to the bonus features, by including some early Renaissance influences. The result is that there’s so shortage of details to drool over when inspecting the clothes and sets. Also, filming the series in Ireland gave the creators a chance to use actual historic buildings and sweeping green plains to fill in for England and other European settings, giving the series a real “feature-film” quality look to it.
Breathtaking sets and scenery aren’t enough to recreate history, though. Fortunately, The Tudors has a solid stable of actors to walk through the gigantic sets and bring life to them. At the center of it all is, of course, Jonathan Rhys Meyers as the king. His first big scene has him sitting on the throne, all regal and proper-like, going over news of the kingdom, making crucial decisions and assigning various tasks to members of his court. He then stands and announces that he’s off “to play.” From there, we see Henry living it up with his buddies. Hunting, jousting, and even tennis are among their “play.” And then there are the women. Oohh, the women. As king, Henry can simply order any woman he wishes into his bed. And they all go for it, not because they’re afraid of being accused of treason, but because he’s the super-studly king.
Rhys Meyers makes it clear that Henry is more than just a party animal. Henry does take his office seriously, in his own way. Early on, Henry mentions one of his predecessors, Henry V, whose fame spread after his against-odds victory against the French. Henry expresses a desire to be remembered like that, as a great king, a hero. This is the legacy that he wants to leave behind, along with a male heir, of course. It’s this desire that drives Henry in everything he does. At least, at first. What makes Henry such a compelling figure in this series is how he is a slave to his impulses. Just after he’s signed a peace treaty that could have meant an end to war throughout Europe, he rescinds it after his pride is wounded, just in time to sign a similar treaty with a potentially more powerful ally.
Henry’s perspective quickly changes, though, once he sets his hungry eyes on Anne Boleyn. The show’s creators could not have found a more perfect Anne than Natalie Dormer. With a lesser actress, it might never have been believable that a woman would not only stand up to Henry but even play hard-to-get. You’d think she’d get beheaded for acting like that. (But don’t fret—there will be beheadings.) Instead of just ordering Anne to his bed, Henry must instead woo her. He writes her love letters, he gives her expensive jewelry, and he doesn’t let up. He insists that he loves her, and that she’d be more than just another mistress, but a future queen. Perhaps it’s because she’s playing hard-to-get, but it’s probably because she’s easily the prettiest girl Henry (and we at home) have ever seen. Dormer is one of those performers who can say it all with just a look. One look into her alluring eyes and you can just tell what she’s thinking or feeling. Looking at Dormer and seeing her feisty performance, it’s believed that Anne really can bewitch the heart of a king.
Anne and Henry’s love doesn’t come without a price, though. Henry is married to Katharine, whom he doesn’t love and barely even sees. Katharine was briefly married to Henry’s late brother before marrying Henry, and in this religion-heavy atmosphere, that move required special permission from the Pope. Henry must now obtain similarly special permission in order to divorce Katharine and marry Anne. The church is holding up the decision doing the bureaucracy thing, and Katharine is similarly reticent, knowing it’s in her best interests to remain in the king’s court. Further complicating matters is that Henry, to prove his eternal love for Anne, has promised not to, uh, “lie with her” until after their own marriage. This is the ongoing plot that runs through most of the episodes on this disc, and as it goes on and on, it gets more and more intense.
That leads us to the next question, does Anne truly love Henry, or she part of a bigger picture? Anne’s desire for him often feels palpable, and yet she and her sister were basically pimped to Henry by their father, Thomas Boleyn, so he, not them, could gain favor from the king. This is the sort of political scheming that is everywhere in this series. Wolsey does everything the king commands, yet does so in a way that still leads him to his own goal, a higher-ranking office in the church. This is a fantastic performance by Sam Neill as Wolsey, one of the best of his I’ve seen. There are plenty of others scheming against Wolsey, hoping to remove him from the king’s side. Caught up in all of this is the king’s desire for a divorce, and who is on what side of the issue. There are more characters switching sides and deceiving each other in this season than there were in the first five years of Survivor—and the characters on The Tudors do it with better writing.
There are even more storylines to follow. Jeremy Northam plays it close to the chest as Thomas More, who is described as a humanist, and one who seeks the positive in any situation. And yet, Martin Luther is out there, somewhere, gathering a following. This worries many in Henry’s court, but none more than More, who becomes irate at the mention of Luther’s name. Meanwhile, there’s a “sweating sickness” killing hundreds if not more throughout London, and there are fears this new plague will find its way into the court. This leads to scenes where we are shown just how disgusting the science of medicine was at the time. Also, a young man named Thomas (Joe Van Moyland, Starter for 10) arrives dressed in rags at the court. It turns out he’s a genius musician, and he soon makes himself at home, performing and composing. Just what part will he have to play before this is all over?
Do all the many plots and subplots mean The Tudors is hard to follow? It can be. When Princess Margaret is first introduced several episodes in, I was all, “Henry has a sister now?” It takes some time to sort out who is who, who is related to who, and who is loyal to who. This is where having the entire season on DVD is a boon. Each episode flows right into the next, so watching them in big blocks of time over a weekend helped me keep everything straight. The liner notes on the inside of the package on the episode selection pages also made for some nice “get-caught-up-quick” summaries.
Complimenting the gorgeous production design is a gorgeous digital transfer. All the many jewels on Henry’s formal wear are so finely detailed that you can make out each one. The red of Wolsey’s robes also stands out from in contrast from the background. The 5.1 sound is perhaps not as booming as we’ve come to expect from the best tracks out there, but it still works nicely. Two featurettes cover the production design and costumes, offering quick looks behind the scenes. A little better is a tour of the actual sites where some scenes in the show took place, narrated by a scholarly-type guy. It’s interesting, but I can’t help but wonder if more could be done regarding the actual history. Writer/producer Michael Hirst (Elizabeth) pulled a Babylon 5 with this series by writing every episode himself, so he obviously has a strong interest in this subject. And yet, there are no commentaries, extended interviews, etc. A lot more could be said about this show, I’m sure. Instead, the other extras are episodes of other showtime series This American Life, Californication and Penn and Teller BS!. You can also use these discs with your computer to watch streaming episodes of other Showtime hits, including Dexter, via something called “N-Technology.” I couldn’t get it to work on my computer, but my computer is ancient and virus-ridden. I’m sure anyone with a competent computer will have better luck than I did.
• I’m too tired to go through all the historical anachronisms one by one. You have to make allowances for shows like this that some aspects of history will be modernized so we can follow what’s happening. That being said, it stuck out when someone mentioned being “sidelined.” Isn’t that an American football metaphor?
• The English accents are pretty thick, and I’m afraid the actors mumble their lines from time to time. Too bad there are no subtitles.
• The packaging mislabels the discs. It says Disc Two has episodes four through seven and Disc Three has episodes eight and nine. But in reality, the discs have three episodes each. I guess this doesn’t really matter in the bigger scheme of things, but errors on packaging make baby Elizabeth I cry.
Great acting, captivating story, lavish production design, and lots of sexiness—no need to lock this one in the tower.