Monday, July 14, 2008

The Tudors

OK, so following Michele aka Liso's recommendation during my NWN Podcast interview a couple months back, I picked up the first season DVDs of the Tudors and finally finished the ten episodes this weekend... just in time to scrounge around for season two I guess. When I first heard about it, I was dubious to say the least, but the show turned out to be quite impressive. It actually managed to hold my interest (i.e. someone who knows quite a bit about the subject) while also holding my wife's interest (i.e. someone who's interested but not interested enough to read a book about it).

I was pleased to see that the show concentrated on the broad picture of what was happening. Too often in movies on the subject - the two most notable examples being Anne of theThousand Days and The Other Boleyn Girl - focus almost exclusively on Henry's and Anne's relationship. Other major characters, such as Cardinal Wolsey, Thomas More, and Catherine of Aragon, are relegated to caricatures focusing on their perceived principle trait: Wolsey is either conniving, corrupt, or (in this matter) ineffective, More is sanctimonious and conscientious, and Catherine is frumpy and resigned. Other characters, such as Francis I of France, Charles V of Spain, or Pope Clement VII, are obliquely referred to or not mentioned at all. Still others, such as Charles Brandon, Bessie Blount, or Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, are not seen period. And yet all these people - not just Henry and Anne - played a role in the great drama that unfolded between about 1530 and 1533, and The Tudors does a good job of showing how they all fit together. I think anyone watching would come away with a solid understanding of the period.

Two performances I was especially taken with are Sam Neill's Cardinal Wolsey and Maria Doyle Kennedy's Catherine of Aragon. I was not initially taken with Neill in the role of Wolsey; I simply kept imagining him running away from a Tyrannosaurus Rex, but I was eventually brought over. Neill showed that he is a terrific actor, as he deftly depicts the Cardinal's slow fall from power. In one moment he is terrified, the next he is desperate, and then his arrogance resurfaces. The moment where Henry first accuses the Cardinal of working against him particularly stands out, as Wolsey collapses to his knees in terror, desperate to assure the King that he is his loyal servant. Care was also taken in some of the dialogue. The line uttered as he is finally dragged away by the guards to be taken to London: "If I had served my God as dilligently as I did my king, he would not have abandoned me in my grey hairs," was actually said to be one of Wolsey's last words (if not his last).

Maria Doyle Kennedy puts in the second surprise performance. Far from the matronly cast-off Catherine is normally portrayed as, Kennedy comes across as classy, elegant, and assured. Her plea to Henry on bended knees during the trial followed by her dramatic exit from the chamber is both historically accurate and fantastically used to demonstrate her sharp mind, quick wit, and political acumen. Yet it is not just a game to her; rather, she is firmly convinced that, in time, Henry will see his folly, tire of Anne, and return to her. Her facial expressions in the scene towards the end when she tries to convince Henry (for the hundreth time) that she was a virgin at the time of their marriage and Henry turns to her and essentially says "yes, and so what?" was especially poignant. She finally realizes that Henry knows she is telling the truth, but the whole matter isn't really about that... and therefore Henry will never be coming back.

So these two actually became complete characters in The Tudors. Others, such as Charles Brandon... well, I guess I should be happy he's there at all. I'm less than enamored with Henry Caville's acting. Nick Dunning's Thomas Boleyn fares little better. Jeremy Northam's Thomas More dangerously flirts with the traditional sanctimonious portrayal, but the harsher aspect brought forth in the final episode as he starts the burning of heretics - an unfortunate event that would continue for the next forty or so years - adds some additional color to the character. James Frain's Thomas Cromwell shows initial promise as a double-crossing zealot, but Cromwell will really only rise to the fore during the events depicted next season, so I'll reserve judgment until then.

So now we get to the principles: Henry and Anne. As with Wolsey, I was not at all optimistic with either of these two. Natalie Dormer could reasonably pass for Anne physically, I guess. She was never supposed to be a great beauty; Anne's allure was (according to contemporaries) in her personality and slightly exotic look. I guess I don't see any of those qualities in Dormer, but it's a matter of personal preference. Jonathan Rhys Meyers is simply too young to depict Henry accurately during these years. The show claims to want to show Henry as a young man, but he was over 40 at the time of his divorce from Catherine. Nevertheless, both Rhys Meyers and Dormer do justice to their subjects as well as they can. Henry's unbounded energy and ambition, his notorious fickleness, and his horrific temper are well-depicted, and Dormer has softened Anne's traditional conniving qualities significantly, adding a new layer to the character, though she's picking up steam as the season progresses. As with Cromwell, the events of next season are where Anne's going to get really interesting, and it will be then that Dormer either puts her stamp on the role or else falls flat on her face.

The production values are also all very high. The costumes are brilliant, though one of the DVD extras indicates that some of them are slightly anachronistic. However, this kind of detail is not something I'd catch; I'll just take their word for it, but they look fantastic. The scenery,both indoors and outdoors is generally supurb, and the music is both dignified and understated for the most part.

So how was the historical accuracy? Well, readers will probably not be surprised at this point to see that I was quite pleased at just how historically accurate the series is. That's not to say there weren't certain errors, but there was an awful lot of truth there. Most of the errors, with a few exceptions outlined below, fall into the category of improper timing. As already stated, Henry should have been about 40 during the climactic events of season one. Also, his daughter by Catherine of Aragon, Mary, was 16 or so. Henry Fitzroy, Henry VIII's illegitimate son by Bessie Blount, did die of the sweating sickness, but he was 17 when it happened, not 4 or so as depicted here. The Field of Cloth of Gold festival, which seems to be only a year or so before Henry's divorce, was actually more than fifteen years prior. And there are many others, but these kinds of errors are inconsequential because the essence of the events are still true. Namely, there was a Field of Cloth of Gold festival that went more or less as depicted, Henry Fitzroy was an illegitimate son by Bessie Blount, he did die of sweating sickness as mentioned, and so forth.

Slightly more problematic are the following substantive disagreements with history.

  • The Duke of Buckingham actually was beheaded, ostensibly for treason, but the charges are historically regarded as being largely trumped-up while the series shows the charges as being true. Also, the rivalry between Buckingham and Henry is probably overplayed by a couple orders of magnitude; I seriously doubt that Buckingham ever thought he should be king over Henry, though he probably thought he was next in line in case anything happened.
  • Henry had two sisters: Margaret and Mary. The series only shows one. They use the name Margaret but the events in her life are mostly those of Mary, though Mary married the aged King of France and not Portugal. In another of those timeline errors, the French King she married was actually the predecessor (and cousin I believe) of the French King depicted in the series.
  • Cardinal Wolsey most definitely did not commit suicide. He had been sick for some time and died of natural causes en-route to London after having been arrested near York.

But I admit that most of these are nitpicks. To be sure, I would definitely recommend The Tudors to anyone who's a fan of the subject matter.


E.C.Patterson said...

Thougtful and well-written review. Interesting read. Thanks.

I have a lot of problem with Rhys-Meyers' acting. It looks forced and lacking in sincerity. Come to think of it, there's something there that reminds me of Keannu Reeves...

Otherwise I enjoy the show quite a bit too. But prefer the scenes without Henry...

Anonymous said...

I am thrilled you liked the show Tiberius!

Season 2 was even better. Although the season 2 premiere was a bit slow. it kicked off with a bang soon after. so be sure to grab season two when it is available. :)

E.C. I tend to disagree about Johnathan's acting. I found him to be very convincing in his role, (other than the fact he is to young)

I will say. How I felt about Anne at the end of season two changed a bit.

Anyway. not giving any spoilers. I hope you get a hold of season two soon :)


Tiberius209 said...


Comparing Rhys-Meyers to Keannu? That's pretty low ;)

I, like liso, tend to disagree about his acting. I would say that he goes over the top on occasion, or even often, and this might come across as "forced," but I guess I see that as being fairly representative of Henry's true persona and so it doesn't particularly sit badly with me.


Yes, as I said, next season will certainly be Anne's. There are so many shades that can come out in her character as she, like Wolsey before her, goes from being in full control to being utterly helpless. And like Wolsey, it is always easier to sympathize with her plight when she is at her end than when she is at the height of her power. Can't wait.

Alina Gordelli said...

portrayal of Sir Thomas More by Jeremy Northam. It is a difficult role exactly because of the popular perception of the character. Yet he was a complex man, and his personality contained sanctimonious as well as human traits, and a gravitation to the single-mindedness. He was also a prominent state man and a philosopher. Given a limited frame in the series, in my opinion, Jeremy Northam showed beautifully the complexity of the character and his development culminating not even in the heart-breaking execution scene, but in his turmoil leading to the final decision to stand by his beliefs. And Jeremy never once overplayed, although it would have been easier to do.

Anonymous said...

Alina Gordelli, shuuuu he has not seen season two yet :) hehe

Tiberius209 said...

What! You mean Thomas More gets executed next season!?! Damn, no need to watch now...



I don't have so much of a problem with Northam's acting so much as the portrayal, which is an issue of writing. However, as I said, the character improved towards the end of season 1, and I can only surmise that he will get even more of a chance to shine next season.

My basic (slight) disgruntlement towards More - especially when the portrayal is overly sanctimonious (see "A Man for all Seasons") - comes from my study of the later Plantagenets and especially Richard III. While I am NO Ricardian, More - or more likely dishonest people who have used his name - have made an impartial study of that particular king much more difficult.