Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Tudors

The second season of the semi-historical series debuts March 30th and, in anticipation, I had the opportunity to watch the first season of The Tudors which is now out on DVD. See how clever the cover of the DVD is with Henry seated in front of three voluptuous women with their head cropped out of the frame? In actuality, Henry VIII beheaded only two of his wives (and he annulled the marriages prior to their execution so technically he didn't behead ANY of his wives), but it just goes to show that the post-medieval melodrama takes as many creative liberties with historical fact and its subject took marital partners.

The casting of hottie Jonathan Rhys Meyers as King Henry may be one of the bigger schisms with reality. The concept was to show Henry as the young, vital, virile man he was at the beginning of his reign, rather than the old, fat, hobbled monarch that died in his mid-fifties. And it's true: Henry was an athlete and a scholar, a poet and musician; jousting, hunting and dancing in his younger years. When the series begins in 1520, Henry VIII is 29 and has been married to Catherine of Aragon for eleven years. Jonathan Rhys Meyers is about the same age as Henry at the beginning of the series, while Maria Doyle Kennedy who plays Catherine is twelve years older than Rhys Meyers instead of the only six years that actually separated the King and his bride.

Despite the fact that Rhys Meyers bears little physical resemblance to Henry VIII, he does an excellent job of conveying the passion and intensity of the powerful monarch. Since each of the ten parts in season one represents one year in Henry's reign, it would have be nice to some aging on Rhys Meyers. He is, after all, pushing 40 at the end of season one and is coming into the time where he does become the fat, gouty old man. I guess that would mess up the original concept, but when Jonathan Rhys Meyers intones at the beginning of each episode: "You think you know a story, but you only know how it ends. To get to the heart of the story, you have to go back to the beginning...," it makes me wonder why the creators DIDN'T go back to the beginning--Henry's marriage to Catherine at age eighteen, his coronation that same year. Instead, they have chosen to depict the MIDDLE of the story which is already fairly well-known.

Natalie Dormer, who is only 5 years younger than Jonathan Rhys Meyers, plays Anne Boleyn who was in fact a decade younger than the King. Although very beautiful, Ms. Dormer's acting is limited to an arched eyebrow and a perpetually pouty smirk. She can't be totally faulted. While the historical Anne Boleyn was a force to be reckoned with--educated, too smart and opinionated for her own good, passionate and petulant--the Anne Boleyn of The Tudors is somewhat of a cipher. (Boleyn managed to string Henry along for 7-8 years prior his marrying her and making her Queen. Given the King's notoriously short attention span, that is quite an accomplishment!) The rest of the cast is made up of a combination of solid character actors (Sam Neill as the conniving and corrupt Cardinal Wolsey and Jeremy Northam as the principled and pious Thomas More) and pretty faces. Henry Cavill who plays Charles Brandon in particular has the bland good looks of a second rate soap actor rather than a 16th English duke.

There is a lot of juggling of storylines along with the facts in The Tudors. I found it interesting that characters peripheral to Henry were given their own subplots, but annoying when those subplots went nowhere and characters were seemingly randomly killed off for want of what to do with them. The costumes by Joan Bergin are exquisite if not all that historically accurate. The black silk boxers encrusted with Swarovski crystals in the shape of a cross that Henry wears are probably a prime example of creative liberty.

I was impressed at how the show appeals to both male and female viewers. Females will no doubt be drawn in by the costumes, the romance and hottie Jonathan Rhys Meyers. Males get political intrigue, jousting and lots of naked boobies. For a historical costume drama, there's a good deal of nudity and a bit of soft core porn-type sex as well. Hey, Henry VIII WAS married SIX times and had a number of mistresses as well, so I've no doubt that at least THAT is accurate.

For all the inaccuracies there are some surprising facts that came to light when viewing The Tudors. Despite his beatification, Thomas More did burn six "heretics" (which was the euphemism for Protestants back then) . Quite a different portrayal than Paul Scofield's saintly turn in A Man for All Seasons. Anne's sister Mary did have a brief liaison with the randy young King prior to his pursuit of her. And Henry's obsession with producing a male heir inspired his desire to annul his marriage with the aging Catherine and, when that was thwarted, precipitated his break with Rome and the establishment of the Church of England.

So many facts, so little time! It's amazing what they did manage to cram into ten hours (well, nine hours and sixteen minutes to be exact!) of The Tudors. The four DVD set that comprises season one also includes many bonus features including featurettes on the production design, costumes and locations for the series and free episodes of This American Life and Californication. As a presentation of historical fact, The Tudors falls short but as an exploration of power, corruption, greed and obsession, the series weaves an intricate and intriguing tale.


  1. You know, I can't believe I never realized each episode was supposed to represent one year of his reign. I mean, obviously I knew that was the amount of time we covered based on the progression of events but I never consciously thought about that while watching the series. I wish I had because then the episodes would have flowed a little better.

    I struggle with some of the changes they make to history. More so because at times it seems like the truth would have been more interesting than the version they go with so I can't understand why they'd change it. Other than that, I do find it a fascinating watch. I'm not ashamed to admit Jonathan Rhys Meyers is a large part of that. Oh how shallow I can be with my TV viewing!

  2. I got the skinny on the episodic layout from Wikipedia. The first season covers the events from 1520-1530.

    I agree with you that the truth is just as interesting as the fictional embellishments. And that Jonathan Rhys Meyers is a hottie.