No television series boasting an opening sequence that includes a brutal assassination, ecstatic adulterous sex, the gorgeously bared breasts of Ruta Gedmintas, and an angry, thoroughly deserved, shout of “French bastards” will ever get too harsh a review from me. With HBO’s The Sopranos currently being whacked into syndication at the end of this season, Showtime is now trying to win viewers over with The Tudors, a tale drawn from the history of a family infinitely more dangerous than those departing New Jersey mobsters. Judging by the sex, violence, and splendor of its wickedly entertaining first few episodes it might just succeed.
Don’t be put off by some of the comments made by Michael Hirst, the show’s creator, ahead of its debut last weekend. Seemingly desperate to reassure a potential audience more familiar with the lost underwear of the Bada Bing! than the lost Palace of Whitehall, he explained that The Tudors wasn’t “another Royal Shakespeare Company or Masterpiece Theatre kind of thing,” ominous, patronizing, and rather surprising words from the writer of Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth (1998), a subtle portrayal of the pre-modern roots, ritual, and appeal of monarchy.
Henry VIII himself, well, the actor (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) who plays him, also did what he could to harvest a few more coach potatoes. The Tudors, he announced, is “sharp; not a slow ten hours of period puke. Nobody wants a history lesson. It’s boring.” Yes, that’s right. That’s what he said. Another day, another actor saying something stupid, you know how it goes. However, to be fair to Rhys Meyers, The Tudors is fast-paced, and, at its best, it is as sharp as the headsman’s axe. However, by the deeply undemanding standards of the entertainment industry, it’s not too bad a history lesson either.
Let’s not overstate this: Showbiz being showbiz, and Showtime being Showtime, poor Clio emerges from The Tudors with disheveled hair, suspiciously rumpled clothing, and a great deal of embarrassment. To list the historical errors that litter this series would try the patience of the most indulgent editor, but for an understanding of their function, check out the treatment of the composer Thomas Tallis (Joe van Moyland, a remarkable resemblance incidentally). Tallis may have been a master of polyphony, but polyamory, apparently, was quite beyond him: He’s shown turning down two groupies (excited, I presume, by the thought of his canon), behavior that would be as shocking in The Tudors as an orgy in The Waltons, were it not for its eventual explanation. Tom’s gay! That’s a revelation that will surprise historians, but it could (possibly) boost ratings, and which do you think counts for more?
The same mixture of historical vandalism and commercial opportunism can be seen in the treatment of Henry’s older sister Margaret (played by the lovely Gabrielle Anwar in a rare escape from the made-for-TV movie wasteland she usually inhabits). The Tudors’ Margaret Tudor appears to be a composite character made up of a few fragments of the real Margaret, rather more of her younger sister, Mary, and then finished off with a titillating veneer of total fiction, wild fantasy and madcap speculation. These include the idea that Margaret smothered her enthusiastic, but unattractive bridegroom, the aged king of Portugal, a sort of Iberian J. Howard Marshall, with a pillow.
As a response to an arranged marriage to a hunchbacked, goatish monarch, a man more simian than regal, this would have been a perfectly reasonable response, but it never actually happened. Margaret Tudor’s first marriage was to a king of Scotland, not Portugal. He died, respectably, in battle. Now it’s true that Margaret’s sister Mary did manage to kill a much older husband (he wasn’t the king of Portugal either, but, poor fellow, of France), but she did it between the sheets, not with a pillow. A strikingly attractive young bride, she wore her unfortunate (if that’s the adjective) husband out after less than three months of marriage.
However, even if we allow for the impact of ACNielsen, there is something almost pathological about the extent to which this show’s creators have chosen to fool around with history. It’s as if the stories of the past are no longer quite good enough. There are traces of a similar attitude in the way that Hirst so relished savaging older versions of this tale with their “English actors in period costumes with elaborate and totally contrived mannerisms.” Of course, he has a point: the BBC’s Emmy-winning The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1970) has aged very badly, but there’s something about the way he makes it that is both arrogant and shortsighted. Today’s realism has a nasty way of becoming tomorrow’s contrivance. Hirst may believe that his Henry is authentic, definitive, the one, but, give it a couple of decades, and The Tudors will almost certainly be no less dated than the BBC’s Keith Michell and those six carefully enunciating, excruciatingly stagy wives of his.
For all that, The Tudors does succeed in giving a good sense of an era at the hinge of history, a time when medieval certainty was being elbowed out by new, exciting and disconcerting intellectual experiment, and a more assertive, less Heaven-hobbled view of what it meant to be human. In The Tudors we see a glittering court filled with people who were, quite literally, full of themselves. It’s a peacock-splendid, hypnotic and frequently cruel spectacle, but one clearly pointed towards the future, away from a past that no longer had much to offer other than stagnation, mysticism, and the appeal of what always had been.
That said, there’s a decent argument to be made that the picture this paints is too generous. There is little in The Tudors to remind viewers that those great palaces were as dirty as they were imposing, grubby, magnificent islands in a sea of mud, squalor, and decay. It’s also reasonable to ask whether Henry’s entourage can really have been quite so good-looking as this series suggests. The Tudor court did indeed attract the young and the beautiful, but the casting of this show clearly owes more to the aesthetics of Abercrombie & Fitch than those of Hans Holbein.
Be that as it may, Jonathan Rhys Meyers’s performance makes the best possible case for the idea that the glitz and glamour of The Tudors might be quite helpful in explaining the events it describes to a contemporary audience. Too rigid an insistence on warts and all that can sometimes distract as much as it enlightens and is often no less an illusion than the alternative.
Besides, when it comes to the young Henry, there are not that many warts to conceal in the first place. Beyond his dark, hard, small, porcine eyes, he bore little resemblance to the bloated tyrant of later years. He was unusually tall, well proportioned (particularly proud of his calves, as it happens), athletic, good-looking, blessed by a head of red-gold hair, a seemingly perfect physical embodiment of the Renaissance man that, in many respects, he was.
Rhys Meyers looks very little like that. He is dark-haired, blue-eyed, much shorter than the king he is meant to be playing (if it’s a doppelgänger you’re after, there’s always Ray Winstone in his Henry VIII), his face that of a fallen angel, a Caravaggio fantasy, a mask of unsettling, compelling sensuality. However, within minutes of his first moments onscreen, the differences in appearance between king and actor cease to matter. In his youth, his energy and his magnetism, in the intelligence he conveys, and the sense of power that envelops him, Rhys Meyers is Henry, right down to the way that those eyes of his never cease to hint at the horrors to come.
And a strong cast doesn’t hurt. As Thomas Boleyn, Nick Dunning is cold, shrewd, and necessarily suave, cynically pimping out his daughters in the family interest. First Mary, then Anne, whatever it took. The always reliable Sam Neill is a watchful, calculating, Cardinal Wolsey, the butcher’s son who rose to become alter rex, Lord Chancellor of England, comfortable with power, and the dangerous games that came with it. As Sir Thomas More, Jeremy Northam is, perhaps inevitably, unable to shake off memories of saintly Paul Scofield and that hagiography for all seasons. Nevertheless, as a skilled and subtle performer, he does at least manage to smuggle a subversive note of smugness into his portrayal of an individual who was, in reality, a far more troubling figure than popular myth would suggest.
Then there’s Anne, seductive, dangerous, clever, fatal, doomed Anne. It’s true that the irresistible Natalie Dormer (the scene-stealing virgin in Lasse Hallström’s Casanova, come to think of it, probably the only virgin in Lasse Hallström’s Casanova) doesn’t have the large, sloe-black eyes for which Anne Boleyn was so famous. In all other respects, however, projecting determination, cunning and an unconventional, feline, allure, she is all too believable as the woman who beguiled a king, dethroned a queen, and changed the course of history.
For there can be no doubt that’s just what she did. To criticize The Tudors as soap opera, a Hampton Court, say, rather than a Melrose Place is to miss the point. In an age of dynastic power, the personal was political. Yes, it was absurd, and thoroughly demeaning, that the state religion of England was under foreign control, but that’s not why Henry VIII broke with Rome. The English King, Defender of the Faith no less, smashed ties that had endured for a millennium for one reason, and one reason only: his infatuation with Anne Boleyn. That comes across very clearly in The Tudors, and it’s why this series, for all its flaws, is not only a naughty treat, but a pretty good history lesson too.