Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Tudors Season 2

So this is how I spent the last week of my long and boring SIX WEEK vacation from school: TV on DVD! As a writer and reader of historical fiction, who focuses on the medieval and renaissance periods, I take an interest in any film or television series dealing in these eras. In general, medieval and renaissance work on the screen is hard to do well just like it is in writing fiction. One risks falling into the familiar traps of getting caught up in formulaic romances involving knights and fair ladies like all those King Arthur movies with people like Richard Gere, war epics like Braveheart and Kingdom of Heaven (which has some siege scenes that could have been ripped straight from Lord of the Rings), or conspiracy thrillers about the Catholic Church a la Dan Brown and The Da Vinci Code phenomenon. 

Indeed, The Tudors, one of the only TV series ever set in the renaissance that I am aware of, avoids lots of these pitfalls. It offers a MUCH better handling of the King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn saga than the film The Other Boleyn Girl and its novel counterpart. To be fair though, The Tudors covers in two seasons (each containing ten one-hour-long episodes) what The Other Boleyn Girl attempts to cover in two hours. 

Nonetheless, this is why I think historical material can work so well on television: It can cover the complicated and unfamiliar terrain of a different era and culture with a depth that films sometimes cannot. The film The Other Boleyn Girl makes the decision to focus primarily on the romance between Henry VIII and the Boleyn sisters while almost completely passing over Henry's decision to break with the Catholic Church, a huge historical detail that changed the course of christendom in England and had repercussions throughout the world. 

The Tudors slows this narrative down immensely and fully explores the formation of Henry VIII's relationship with Anne Boleyn, his gradual and fraught decision to break away from Rome, the political consequences for England and its relationships to France and the Holy Roman Empire, the social upheaval and near revolt this caused inside Henry's kingdom, and how the break away from Papal authority both enabled and eventually doomed Anne and Henry's marriage. Anne's beheading at the end of Season 2, due to Henry's frustration for her being unable to produce a male heir, makes much more sense when you understand the political, social, religious, and emotional cost of Henry's decision to divorce his first wife, Catharine of Aragon, for Anne Boleyn. 

Getting off my history soapbox, The Tudors exhibits an intensity characteristic of most Showtime series with nudity, uncomfortable (sometimes sickening) torture scenes, lots of executions, and sexual coercion of female characters on a regular basis. The show is well cast. Jonathan Rhys Meyers' Henry VIII is eccentric, unstable, charismatic, passionate, vulnerable, powerful, and sexual. Natalie Dormer (Anne Boleyn) fully realizes her character in the second season by adding fear and vulnerability to a formerly icy and calculating presentation. Dormer also does an excellent job of injecting brief cracks in Boleyn's sanity as she begins to abuse alcohol and laugh hauntingly in short hysterical outbursts as she senses her oncoming death. Jeremy Northam stands out as Thomas More with his balance of peace and anger. Henry Cavill's character (the Duke Charles Brandon) also improves in the second season by growing up a bit. James Frain who plays Thomas Cromwell is another standout performance, especially in the season finale when we get a glimpse into his guilt for his role in all the carnage in the last few episodes. 

Weaker performances include Nick Dunning (Boleyn's father) who does a good job of playing the heartless scheming father but can't seem to break out of that type. I would have liked to have seen the writing and the acting push this character a little further. He puts his family through a lot, and the pressure he puts on Anne is enormous and cruel, and he never seems that conflicted to me. Maria Doyle Kennedy (Queen Catharine of Aragon) is also pretty one-dimensional. Whenever we see her, she is sad, confused, and sitting. Seriously. Does this character ever walk? I also found her unwavering naiveté and devotion to Henry VIII, despite his cruel treatment of her, a little unbelievable. It would have been nice to see her show some different emotions other than flabbergasted hurt. She is boringly constant. 

The Peter O'Toole guest spots as Pope Paul III are entertaining. O'Toole brings charisma, sophistication, and humor to any role he plays, but the cutaways to these scenes in Rome seem a little out of place at times and don't always have a direct bearing on the plot back in foggy old England. The cuts to Rome are also noticeably absent in the last episode as the events of the entire season climax. If the O'Toole spots continue in the third season, I would like to see them better integrated into the show or otherwise dropped altogether. 

Back to history for a moment. The sets look authentic, and the costumes are beautiful. The show is filmed in Ireland, and this serves the series well with lots of shots of saturated misty mores and stone manors and palaces. The computer graphics of Whitehall Palace leave something to be desired. They look cheap when contrasted with shots of the actual Tower of London and other various onsite shots at country manors and palaces. But the large budget for the series appears in the costumes (In virtually every scene, Henry has a new wardrobe that is as equally ornate and complex as the last). Sets that aren't too grandiose, extremely accurate enactments of 16th century court masques, and proper use of titles, customs, and royal ceremony show superb attention to historical detail. 

Overall, The Tudors is a compelling political, religious, and romantic drama. Almost every character faces a crisis of conscience, guilt before God, personal ambition, betrayal, political maneuvering, and in one way or another the chopping block. There is very little relief from the intensity of the drama. It is constant almost to a slight fault and can sometimes approach draining. Some comedic relief may benefit the series, or even just more of the interesting tone shifts that we saw in the opening of the season finale (with the choir and the swans and the delayed climax) would serve the show well and give the viewer some time to recover from Henry's wrath. Generally speaking though, this is first rate drama that is character driven with beautiful costumes and set design and enough historical credibility to satisfy most history enthusiasts.

It will be interesting to see how the show carries forward beyond the Boleyn narrative, which has been the thrust of the show for two seasons. It is hard to imagine the Jane Seymour character (Anita Briem) being as captivating as Anne Boleyn, though it appears a new actress is taking on the role. Historically speaking, the subsequent marriages (and divorces) of Henry VIII were not as traumatic as the first "Great Matter" of Henry's divorce from his first wife Catharine of Aragon to marry Anne. The Tudors will have to come up with something new to drive itself, though Henry's capricious romances will undoubtedly remain a part of the drama. This closing of the Boleyn story is actually a good thing though. We have seen so much of Anne Boleyn over the past view years. Now that she is good and dead (Come on, we all knew the ending, I'm not spoiling anything), we can finally see Henry VIII develop beyond that relationship. 


  1. Never seen this, but I've heard good things, and I'm a fan of JRM. Have you seen Titus? You'd like it.

  2. No, I should check it out though, I have also heard good things.

  3. I just finished watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer all the way through (for a second time). Time to pick a new show! You've given me something to consider...