Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Celebrating 100 Posts, 33 Years, and 2 Seasons of Tudors

My login screen for this blog says this will be my 100th post. Do I win anything? No?

As it so happens, this is also three days before my 33rd birthday, and I don't think I'll post again before then, so do I win anything? No?

Oh, well, then I guess I'll finally give my thoughts on the second season of the Tudors.

The story of Henry VIII and his first two wives is well-known with several television serials and movies depicting the events as far back as televisions and movies were around. Season 1 outlines the first half of these events while season 2 of the Tudors depicts the second half of these events, roughly the period between 1533 and 1536, which saw Anne Boleyn fall from her pinnacle to her ultimate demise. In a way, the two seasons mirror each other with each concerning itself with the downfall of one queen and the rise of another, and the series even draws attention to this by making the final scene of the season, in which Henry begins feasting on a large meal, an intentional duplicate of a scene in Season 1.

However, whereas the first season covered a far greater amount of time, the second season actually felt more unevenly paced. The most jarring example is episode three, which began with the announcement of Anne's pregnancy and ended with the birth of the future Elizabeth I. That's nine months in one episode while the full ten episodes covered three years. The final episode, on the other hand, covers only a couple days. It's a minor quibble, I suppose; the argument can always be made that Anne's last couple days were far more interesting than the nine months of her first pregnancy and so deserved more attention. But I can honestly say I noticed the difference in pacing, and it created a certain unevenness to the flow. Of course, I also watched all ten episodes in about two weeks, a rate at which the series was not originally intended to be viewed, so take the criticism with a grain of salt.

Several performances were noteworthy this season. The first is James Frain as Thomas Cromwell. Back in my season 1 review, I glossed over Cromwell, saying that this would be the season he came to the fore. Now that he is front-and-center, I am happy to see a calm, reasoned approach to the character while still maintaining an undercurrent of zealotry. Frain portrays a man who carefully guards his words and has tremendous control over his emotions. When Anne lambasts him for siphoning off too much of the money from the dissolution of the monasteries into the royal treasury, he simply bows and says nothing before being dismissed. When she outright threatens to have his head removed, he similarly keeps his composure. Yet underneath it all is a shrewd, calculating, and merciless intellect. He is among the first to determine that Anne's influence is collapsing. In earlier episodes, Anne has forced the removal of Queen Catherine from the royal court and played a major role in the executions of Bishop Fisher and Thomas More, but when Chapuys asks Cromwell whether he is afraid of Anne's threats, he simply snickers and replies, "not at all."

But, most deliciously, underneath this calm exterior, Cromwell is utterly ruthless. Mere days after imporing Thomas More to take the oath that would save his life, Cromwell engages Richard Rich to entrap him and provide false testimony against him before the tribunal. Later, Cromwell willingly engages in the torture of Mark Smeaton to gain the confession required to convict Anne. When asked by someone (Thomas Boleyn, I believe?) about his religious views, he replies with something akin to, "I seek nothing less than the total destruction of the Catholic Church." Indeed, he can in one minute smile to the face of a man like More, who will shortly be martyred for the Catholic Church, and implore him to save his own life, and in the next excoriate him before the tribunal for "papal worship and heretical idolatry." Finally, when Anne's last true ally, Thomas Cranmer, comes to him to determine what can be done to save her (and as he sees it, the Reformation in England), Cromwell simply counsels him that, "sometimes people need to be sacrificed to achieve the greater good."

All-in-all, Frain's performance is a thing of beauty and worthy of three paragraphs in this review. I simply can't wait to see where he goes in season three, which reportedly takes the history all the way to the rise of Catherine Howard. If this is true, then I'm betting the final scene will be the execution of Cromwell, and it will be interesting to see how Frain handles his fall from grace.

However, as good as Cromwell is, season two is really Anne Boleyn's, and Natalie Dormer also does a fantastic job, even upstaging Frain at most points. Anne is a reasonably complex and slightly controversial historical figure with nearly as many takes on her as there are books about her. Previously, Genevieve Bujold portrayed her as a raving bitch in Anne of the Thousand Days and Natalie Portman focused exclusively on the increasingly manic side of her character in The Other Boleyn Girl. And while I think both are valid portrayals and reasonably true as far as they go, the increased scope of an entire series over a film and a larger cast of included characters allows Dormer to give Boleyn a better historical context and further flesh out the character into a full three dimensions.

When the season begins, Anne is at the height of her power. She holds the king in the palm of her hand, and she is at the center of a broad, if loosely-aligned, anti-Wolsey coalition that had formed to bring about the downfall of the powerful chancellor. Slowly, however, the same scheming that brought about Wolsey's downfall begins to work against the new power behind the king, Anne herself. Realizing that the king is fickle in his affections, both for advisors and women alike, her one-time allies - Suffolk, Cromwell, and even her own father - begin to break away from her, causing her to become ever-more isolated and dependent only on the king's affections for her survival. While she probably never would be able to stop his womanizing, she'd guarantee her place at court forever if she would just give the king what he most desired, a son. After all, he would never risk delegitimizing a male heir by formally casting aside its mother. But with the birth of a single girl followed by two miscarriages, time began to run out for Anne, for once Jane Seymour had caught Henry's eye, it was all-too-easy to convince him that Anne should go.

Anne, of course, was not a stupid woman. She had to have realized - too late - that the position for which she had so long fought was, in actuality, a gilded prison from which she would never escape. Thus, it's the portrayal of this realization that always proves interesting, hence the multiple "valid" portrayals I referenced earlier. With a full ten hours to show the decline, however, Dormer captures them all. One moment, Anne's threatening Cromwell. In the next, she's paranoid of Suffolk's relationship with the king. In the next, she implores Henry to come back to her bed. There is immense relief when she finds herself pregnant again followed by extreme anguish when she miscarries. She attacks Henry when she finds him kissing Jane Seymour only to immediately remind him how much she loves him. The entire swirl of emotions released by Dormer show a woman in extreme emotional turmoil, uncertain of where to turn to avoid the yawning abyss in front of her.

Her finest moment comes in the final episodes when the end is clear. Confined to the Tower, she has finally resigned herself to her fate. Dormer elegantly shows a woman both relieved to finally be free of the drama while also being understandably frightened of what lies before her. The entire scene is well-acted and a fitting end to the season.

No one else stands out as worthy of especial attention, though no one was attrocious either. Rhys-Meyers as Henry VIII is even, though no further range of performance should be expected. He falls in and out of "love" with women and plays the tyrant quite well, and that's what we should expect more of from him in the future. Henry Cavill as Suffolk plays the loyal friend well enough, and at least his character showed a bit of maturation this past year. Maria Doyle Kennedy was one of the show-stealers last season but had significantly less to do this year. Nick Dunning as Thomas Boleyn was the scheming ass-hat who eventually abandoned even his son and daughter to their fate. It's accurate and the common interpretation, but it doesn't really call for terrific range from an actor. Honestly, I couldn't get into Jeremy Northam as Thomas More all that much, but I think that's because I'm tired of the sanctimonious portrayal of More. That said, I'm at a loss as to how I would do it better, and at least, there was a bit of texture in that More was shown to legitimately be conducting business that could be seen as detrimental to the king and therefore treasonous. Anita Briem as Jane Seymour was a bit milquetoast, but that's a common portrayal, and she's being replaced in season three, so I won't waste further space on her. The rest of the characters were too minor to matter.

Again, the other production values were excellent. The costuming and scenery were sumptuous and the music was suitably majestic when called for but mostly blended well into the background, which is a good thing. The pacing, as mentioned earlier, seemed a bit off at times, but other than that nitpick, I thought the directing and writing were quite good.

Other than one exception, which I'll get to in the next paragraph, I also thought the history was pretty good. Again, there's room for some interpretation of the events depicted, but the series followed - for the most part - the predominant line of thinking articulated most notably by Eric Ives, perhaps the preeminent current Anne Boleyn historian. Given that it's a drama intended for entertainment, only a nitwit would argue with that approach. In addition, I was pleased at some of the small details that the series showed that were absolutely true. For example, there's a nice scene where Chapuys visits the princess Mary that illustrates the close friendship the two would develop. In another scene, Chapuys tells Suffolk that Catherine's heart, examined after her death, was blackened, and he therefore suspected Anne had had her poisoned. (After this line, my wife turned to me and asked, "is that true?" Yes, it is.) In fact, Catherine's heart had turned black, and poison was therefore suspected. However, the modern belief is that the blackened part was actually a cancerous tumor that had caused Catherine's death. Another scene shows the start of the rumor that Anne had six fingers, or at least the beginnings of a growth of a sixth finger, and she was therefore a witch. This rumor did pass around for a number of years, and even now, I see the occasional article or book that still seems to accept it as true. Both Thomas More's and Anne's deaths were well-depicted right down to the last statements largely taken from the actual recorded last statements of both. Anne's execution being delayed a day was true, as was her quip to the Constable of the Tower that she had "heard say the executioner was very good, and I have a little neck."

However, I have to call the series to task for the portrayal of William Brereton. The series portrayed him as a zealot working for the Catholic Church and willing to be martyred to bring down the queen. He was the guy who tried to assassinate Anne during her coronation procession and then willingly confessed to an affair with her so that he could ensure her execution. This portrayal is so counter to history that I can't even correct it in short order except to say it's crap. Furthermore, I can't see any special reason for making such a change, seeing as how the actual story was juicy enough. I've gone on long enough that I won't bore you with the truth about Brereton, but you can find it at Wikipedia if you are interested.

So overall, the second season maintained the same high level of quality as the first. I eagerly await season three, though I do find myself wondering how it will be received by the public. We are now entering a period that, while turbulent, is not nearly as well-known. Whereas season two stayed almost entirely within England, I suspect season three will concentrate much more on foreign affairs to maintain an interesting narrative, notwithstanding the need to run through queens three and four and get to number five. So we'll have Jane's reign and death, further squabbling with the Acts of Succession, instability within the Holy Roman Empire, the debacle surrounding Anne of Cleves, the rise of the Howards, and the fall of Cromwell. Should be good.

7 comments:

Liso said...

Excellent Review! I so enjoy reading your blog! It is as entertaining and well written as a good short book! :)

Happy Birthday Tiberius! "I think I mentioned that in the last post" As for a getting a prize? Well. You have devoted blog readers? hehe

Regards
Liso

Anonymous said...

You're making me want to watch this series. Too bad I'm so cheap . . . hmm.

Excellent review, though.

Liso said...

Anonymous

I think you can rent the seasons. Season 3 starts next month!

Tiberius209 said...

Liso,

Thanks for your birthday wishes and the compliment.

Anonymous,

My copy of season 2 on Amazon was $30 I think. The extras aren't much, but at ten hours, that $3 per hour. And I'll undoubtedly watch them again at some point down the road, which lessens the per hour expense.

Otherwise, as Liso said, you can probably find them somewhere to rent. If the subject matter at all interests you, you won't regret it.

Liso said...

I just wanted to comment

You can download season's 1 and 2 complete on iTunes for $19.90 a season. Not a bad deal :) $1.99 per hour episode. :)

Anonymous said...

Thanks, that isn't bad! I'll definitely look into it, as I'm a history geek. :)

Liso said...

Adding another comment. Two shows into season 3. Outstanding! And wow brutal! This season is starting off full of action, turmoil, and intrigue. :)