Screening History: “The Spanish Princess” (Season 1)

Having really enjoyed both The White Queen and The White Princess on Starz, I naturally decided to dive right into The Spanish Princess, which picks up the story several years later. By this point, Henry and Lizzy have settled quite well into their lives as king and queen of England. They now have four children that have lived to adulthood, and at last it is time to find a bride for elder, Arthur. Enter Katherine of Aragon, a young woman of indomitable will and sweeping passions. Katherine, however, will find all of her considerable charm, strength, and political skills challenged by the nature of the Tudor court.

From the moment that she appears on screen, Charlotte hope shines as Katherine of Aragon. She somehow manages to capture both Katherine’s steely self-control and vulnerability, her heart and her sharp intellect, and that’s quite an accomplishment. I’ve always thought that there’s been far too little focus on Katherine’s youth in popular culture, and The Spanish Princess really allows us to see how this young woman would grow into a queen who would hold her own against all who came against her.

Much as I liked Hope as Katherine, she’s a little outshone by two other members of the cast. The first, of course, is the divine Harriet Walter as Lady Margaret Beaufort. She’s a little less dour and bitter than Michelle Fairley’s iteration of the character, but she seems to be a bit shrewder in terms of her political abilities. She’s laser-focused on ensuring that her dynasty continues, even if that means destroying Catherine. Walter brings all of her considerable talent to bear in the role, and her presence helps to elevate some of the clunkier writing (it remains a little unclear why she bears Katherine such irrepressible hatred). Walter truly shines in the final episode of the season, as she has to confront the sudden death of her beloved son, the collapse of her own power, and the legacy of her own actions that brought her family to the throne. Walter fully captures the mix of strength and vulnerability that has always been key to Margaret’s character in all three of her iterations. As the only character that has had a substantial presence in all three series, it was very satisfying to see it brought to such a stunning conclusion.

In my opinion, the real star of this show is Lina, played by Stephanie Levi-John. Her character is fascinating for a host of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that we finally get to see a woman of color playing a prominent role in a costume drama set in the 16th Century (something that I’m sure will cause all of the racist fans of the genre to lose their minds). More than that, though, Lina’s storyline allows us a glimpse into the lives and mentalities of a group of people who have been largely ignored in costume dramas set in this period: i.e., the first generation of those who were forcibly converted by Catholic monarchs of Spain. In The Spanish Princess, it is precisely this question of faith that is one of the central crises that Lina must negotiate, since her beloved Oviedo still adheres to Islam. Her conflict, between her love of Oviedo and her devotion to Katherine, is one of the most moving in the entire season.

As with the previous two series, however, I found some of the writing infuriatingly lazy. For example, I’m not sure I buy the idea that Maggie Pole was in on the conspiracies against the Tudors rather silly (though Laura Carmichael is spot-on casting for this character). Unfortunately, some of this sloppiness is due to the nature of the source material. Philippa Gregory is a little notorious for her tendency to blur the boundaries between fact and fiction in her work, while insisting that she isn’t doing so, and the series carries on with that.

To some degree, The Spanish Princess is hamstrung by its own story. It’s a little difficult to feel much sense of narrative urgency or mystery about Katherine’s narrative, since we already know how it ends up. We all know that Katherine ended up being Henry’s first wife, if only because his attempt to get that marriage annulled would be such an earth-shattering historical event. The cast, however, deserves universal praise for doing their best to keep things moving forward and engaging.

Ultimately, The Spanish Princess is about the ongoing conflict between the past and the future in the Tudor court. Margaret Beaufort is, of course, the most visible icon of the past and its iron hold on the present, while Henry and Katherine are the promise and the peril of what’s to come. Even at this early stage, however, we can see the ways that Henry’s willfulness and disregard for how things are done are setting him on the road that will lead to his later despotism (and it’s worth pointing out that Ruairi O’Connor does an excellent job of bringing a young Henry to life. His is certainly one of the better interpretations of the monarch in his youth). Likewise, Katherine’s choices–particularly her claim to be a virgin–will come to have consequences that are truly historic in their impact.

All in all, I was mostly pleased with this outing into Renaissance England. Though some of the plot points felt rather contrived–and not particularly effectively, at that–overall I thought that the series did justice to Katherine of Aragon’s plight as she sought to navigate the vicious and venomous court. I’d ultimately place it somewhere between The White Queen and The White Princess. It has significantly better production values and acting than the former, but the writing and acting aren’t quite as strong as the latter.

I’m very excited about the fact that there is now a second season on the way, and I’m genuinely curious to see how far they take it. Given my endless fascination with the Tudors and with costume drama, I’m willing to go along for the ride.

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