Screening History: “The Tudors” (Season 1)

I’m not sure why I recently decided to watch Showtime’s The Tudors, that sudsy and soapy and gloriously sexy series about Henry VIII and his wives. Obviously, I’m a history buff, and the past is never far from my mind, and it’s true that I haven’t had a chance to revisit it at length since it finished its run way back in 2010. Whatever the reason, I decided to just binge the whole thing again and share my thoughts with all of you.

There’s much to love about the first season, and the supporting players are a key part of that. Henry Cavill is a fantastic Charles Brandon, bringing just the right mix of rascality and nobility to his portrayal. His doomed romance with Henry’s sister Margaret is a little rushed, and it excises a great deal (including the three daughters that they had together, all of whom would come to play an important part of Tudor dynastic politics).

The MVPs of the first season, however, have to be Sam Neill and Maria Doyle Kennedy as Cardinal Wolsey and Katherine of Aragon, respectively. Of course, one always expects the best of Neill no matter what he appears in, but he really shines as Cardinal Wolsey, the most important member of the Tudor court outside of Henry himself. Watching him you can actually believe that he is the son of a humble butcher who managed to claw his way up the hierarchy of both temporal and spiritual power by sheer grit alone. Though he is a polished courtier, he’s also not afraid to use physical force when necessary. His fall from grace–and eventual death by his own hand–is one of the most moving aspects of the whole season, a heavy reminder of the wages of serving a capricious monarch like Henry VIII.

Maria Doyle Kennedy is, in a word, exquisite as the saintly Katherine of Aragon, though I realize that not everyone sees her in that light. (In fact, I was recently reminiscing with a friend of mine about the series, and her impression was that the series intended us to see Katherine as boring and old). For me, she embodies everything that I’ve always associated with Henry’s first wive. She is at once tenacious, vulnerable, loving, compassionate and, when her ire is aroused, vengeful. Somehow, Kennedy manages to combine all of those things, and you genuinely feel for her as she is increasingly distanced from Henry and from the court that she has ruled over for so long.

Though she won’t come into her own until season two, Natalie Dormer also deserves a lot of credit for her portrayal of Anne Boleyn. I strongly suspect that, along with Geneviève Bujold, hers will go down as one of the definitive portrayals of one of the most infamous queens to have ever strutted her way across the stage of English history. With her lips always slightly pouty and her unique looks (is there anyone who looks at all like her in film and television today?) she seems to have been born to play Anne Boleyn, a woman who was similarly described as being like no other woman at Henry’s court. What makes The Tudors so effective is that it makes us appreciate and understand her perspective–particularly the impossible position she occupies as a woman in this patriarchal world, her desires always submitted to theirs–even as it also allows us to occupy Katherine’s. For Anne’s part, she early on realizes that she will have to put aside her love for Thomas Wyatt, or else they will both face Henry’s wrath. Her spurning of him is one of the most heart-wrenching moments in the entire first season.

However, there is one huge, glaring problem with this season, and the series as a whole, and that is Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Henry. It probably goes without saying that he looks absolutely nothing like the historical figure. Aside from being far too young, he is also significantly shorter than Henry, and his dark brown hair is a far cry from the signature Tudor red of Henry and, except for a brief moment, he doesn’t sport a beard. It’s more than just his appearance, though. He seems to have three settings: shouting, brooding, and sexing. As a result, his depiction of Henry is curiously one-dimensional, and he emerges as little more than a petulant, screaming child, one giant, pulsing id.

That said, there are some redeeming qualities about Meyers’ portrayal. Though his style leaves much to be desired, and though he looks nothing at all like the real Henry, his model physique and face–both of which are sculpted, razor-sharp, and defined–manage to convey Henry’s capriciousness. Henry VIII was a man, after all, who was known for using and jettisoning courtiers at an almost frantic pace (sound familiar?) Furthermore, the fact that Meyers is little more than an id is, itself, a commentary on Henry’s reign which, in some ways, driven by Henry’s whims and sexual desires.

Thus, contrary to what most people at the time (and since) have asserted, I actually think that the series does have something serious to say about history, at least implicitly. While the series’ creator Michael Hirst commented–hopefully somewhat tongue-in-cheek–that Showtime commissioned him to write a soap opera and not history, he actually managed to do both. It is certainly true that The Tudors, especially the first season, pays more attention to the suds and the sex than it does to the events of the past, but that may be precisely the point. While it does allude to significant historical events–the meeting with Francis at the Field of the Cloth of Gold, for example–The Tudors is primarily interested in making us feel the past, to understand sex and desire as key to the unfolding of grand historical events. This may not be what many define as historical understanding, but it is a form of engagement with the past, and it should be recognized and respected as such.

Stay tuned for my review of the second season which, in my humble opinion, is when the series reaches its apotheosis.

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