The Tudors Review

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by Simon Crust Oct 7, 2008 at 12:00 AM

    Divorced, Beheaded, Died, Divorced, Beheaded, Survived

    So goes the little rhyme used to remember what happened to Henry VIII's wives. Having given up history at O level, not because I never liked the subject, in fact I had quite an aptitude for names, dates and had a genuine interest, but more because the teacher seemed more interested in telling us students about his dog than instruction about the past (I even remember an exam question about it), my actual knowledge of this most turbulent time in English History is somewhat limited. I know the basics and the rhyme, but specifics (apart from one fact that I will share later) remain shrouded in darkness. So much so that when I came to view the first season of The Tudors I found my interest raised enough to actively seek out the truth behind the show, effectively asking the question “did that actually happen?” (A prime example was the 'sweating sickness' that ravaged the land) Surprisingly most of what was depicted did occur, proving that old adage “truth is stranger than fiction”.

    The Tudors first hit our screens in April 2007 and was an immediate success, by mixing historical accuracy, intriguing story lines, incredible set design, an accurate eye for detail and plenty of sex, the story was told of a young Henry VIII (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), a king that had a very tenuous claim to the throne and his infatuation with one Anne Boleyn (Natalie Dormer). The first season, amongst plenty of other back stories, deals with how these two pivotal characters met and follows their relationship up until a point where Henry wants to break from the Catholic Church in Rome and place himself as head of the Church of England.

    Season two continues all the story threads set up in the first; once again, amongst plenty of other story threads, Henry, now a power in his own right, breaks from the Catholic Church, in effect defying their judgment, divorces Catherine, his first wife, and marries Anne in secret before parading her in a coronation. The season then follows this eventually doomed relationship right up until her demise. Even those with the faintest grasp of History know these aspects of Henry's life and writer/creator Michael Hirst wisely places them centre stage. Famous for historical or period dramas Hirst penned the two Elizabeth films as well as other such epics. Never one to let the truth get in the way of a good story he plays liberally with historical fact, more so with his filmic writing than this particular show, and is very blasé about it, citing he is an artist and as such not bound by fact. However some of the most outrageous scenes were not from his pen, such as Henry and the king of France wrestling near naked in court. The biggest concession that the writing has, and this is true for most shows and films, is that of time. Basically everything takes a far shorter time to develop and happenings occur way before the actual times; this is to keep a pace with the show and is something that I, for one, can concede. Hirst has a natural skill when it comes to these epics, by effortlessly mixing fact and fiction (Henry's accurate parade of Anne with an assassination attempt, JFK style, at her coronation) lead to a seamless belief in what you are seeing. And whilst much is made of the various back stories building the political intrigue and back stabbing advancement through the court, the end goal is never lost and the thrust is ever onwards. It works seriously well, giving an almost 'soap opera' feel whilst building towards an inevitable climax. Hirst created the show and writes the entire thing, no small feat when you consider the quality of the show, aided, as it is, by the periodic costumes, sets and above all the choice of actors.

    Again, Henry is a well known to most people, his portraits are established; a huge bear of a man with fiery red hair and beard. The actor chosen would have to be able to portray a man that split England from the rest of the world in terms of religion, a man that married no less than six times in his quest to father a son, a shrewd but highly intelligent king. The part eventually fell to Jonathan Rhys Meyers a young man that on the surface has nothing in common with his character. He is neither big, nor red nor bold or imposing. And during the early part of the first season he did look a little out of place. However during this second season he has really hit his mark. Yes he still looks nothing like the Henry of the history books, but he now commands his court with an assured look. Not afraid to switch between emotions, much as the real Henry did, Meyers can silence a room with a swift jerk of his head and the steel of his eyes. He walks with a gait that comes with absolute power, yet is tender enough to melt the hearts of the many of his mistresses. Let's not kid ourselves here, Meyers was also cast for his sex appeal and boy does he exude it. The series is about Henry and Meyers has taken the part and given it the gravitas it needs to succeed. My only criticism would be of his voice which is not of that deep booming command that one associates with such a character, and yet, the soft lilt added to the body language manage to disguise that fact; for when he looses it, it's all fire and heart.

    To play opposite Meyers as Anne is Natalie Dormer a little known actress that has created such a character that I suspect she will forever be known as. Looking this time much like the established portraits Dormer is dark with wide eyes and a slender neck. But it is her demeanour that so dominates the screen; she is sexy and mysterious when we first get to see and know her we find her as alluring as the king. During the second season we start to see her as she really is, a dark and scheming harlot who thinks of no one but herself. Of course this is how history portrays her, but Hirst plays with our emotions by giving such a human face to the character, her wants and desires against her insecurities and desperate need to be loved. Dormer captures this aspect perfectly, watch the torment she suffers when ordering one of her Ladies to bed the king while she is pregnant, or the horror of her actions as she banishes her sister, perhaps her only true friend in the world, including her own father, from court. Such actions gain much sympathy for the character. Suffering slightly from the 'Titanic syndrome' in that we know what happens to the character, Hirst skilfully manipulates the character and our emotions that we cannot help but be swept along.

    Whilst the doomed relationship is the main thrust of the show of equal importance is the reformation of England and the splitting from the Catholic Church. This story thread is arguably of far more importance to the show and, indeed, to England. Although it affects every character in the show, of those that are central, it is the relationship between Thomas More (Jeremy Northam) and Henry. The first season sees these two characters as more then friends, a father son relationship, with More leading the King in spiritual as well as ethical decisions. When it comes to the second season Henry is in little need of such guidance and when More sees where the country is heading leaves his post and in effect his friend. Much is made of it More's steadfast refusal to bow to political pressure and willingness to martyr himself. The upheaval this causes with Henry is wonderfully seen and is clearly a metaphor for the country whole. The actual execution is a heart wrenching display full of incredible imagery; Henry's cry of anguish over a cross steeped in blood. Television rarely touches upon greatness but in these few scenes The Tudors manages it.

    Frustratingly such greatness is also marred by odd little scenes that seem shoehorned in because there hasn't been any sex for a few minutes. These normally involve the King and some wench or another; one particular stands out when Henry beds a man's sweetheart just for riding through his lands. Perhaps such actions did really happen, but there seemed little context to the show and just an excuse to see Meyers without any clothes on, once again.

    All the character actors acquit themselves with aplomb, there are too many to list individually but special mentions must go to Nick Dunning as the scheming and slimy Thomas Boleyn, easy to see where his daughter gets her 'charms' from, Henry Cavill as the kings friend, constantly in and out of favour Charles Brandon, a perfect match of youth and looks to compliment Meyers' King, Maria Doyle Kennedy as Queen Catherine of Aragon whose love for her husband, country and God are an inspiration to her people and consequently to us and finally Peter O'Toole as Pope Paul III shows just how it should be done.

    Although the series has had some nine different directors, there is only one cinematographer, Ousama Rawi, which gives the show a distinctive look, plenty of dark interiors lit with sharfts of light and flame. The attention to detail is also incredible, with the costumes probably coming off the best. The sets are wide and authentic right down to the types of food eaten, with perhaps only concessions given to the amount of filth that would have been present.

    In all The Tudors is a terrific program and an very entertaining series. The 'inside' story of this, most famous of Kings, is given a human face and it makes for very compelling viewing. So what of that one historic fact that I can remember from my school lessons? Well, we go back to Queen Anne's coronation and parade though London and the many banners that adorned the streets marked with the initials H and A. All this the show had correct. But where it showed few crowds and apathy I was taught that there were plenty of crowds that lined the parade route and all of them copied what was written on the banners “HA HA HA HA” they laughed.

    The Rundown

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