Friday, March 6, 2009
Review: The Tudors
Since the beginning of the year, I've been indulging in the first two seasons of the Showtime series The Tudors on DVD. If there's one thing people know about the Tudor dynasty, it's usually King Henry VIII, specifically that he founded the Church of England, and that he had six wives and he cut off all their heads. Well, that of course isn't entirely true. He only executed two of them (2 and 5). Two others he divorced divorced (1 and 4), one died in childbirth (3), and the last outlived him. He also had three children who all became rulers of England: Edward VI, Mary I (aka Bloody Mary), and Elizabeth I (aka The Virgin Queen, patroness of William Shakespeare, etc.). This very brief history lesson teaches you to be aware of the facts of history. That said, if you're looking to a show like The Tudors to teach you history about 1530s England, you're in for a reality check, because little is historically accurate in this show. People usually think of Henry as a bloated, red-headed, middle-aged monarch. In fact when he was young he was a dashing Renaissance prince, and so he is depicted in the show by the suave Jonathan Rhys Meyers (pictured here). But the events in which he divorced his first wife Catherine of Aragon to marry Anne Boleyn didn't happen until he was close to 40 years of age, and thus that picture you have in your mind of the old guy is actually more accurate than Rhys Meyers here. But that just won't do for television. Anyone would rather see a former Hugo Boss and Versace model have sex with all these gorgeous women. I could go on and on about more of the historical discrepancies, but this article on Wikipedia does a good job explaining some of them (my favorite is the conflation of Henry's two sisters into one). There are attempts in the show to relate to art historical events: the French king Francis I mentions Leonardo da Vinci being in his court; Hans Holbein is court painter to Henry; and Pope Paul III hires Michelangelo to paint the Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel in 1534. All of these things are true. But otherwise this show takes creative license to an extreme. Indeed, as creator Michael Hirst has pointed out, "Showtime commissioned me to write an entertainment, a soap opera, and not history ... [a]nd we wanted people to watch it." So what does that mean? American audiences can't handle historical accuracy like the British can? Does that also explain the occasional need for the marketing staff to write the king's name as "Henry 8" because Americans can't understand Roman numerals? Please. Give us more credit than that.
If it seems like I'm being overly harsh about the show, it's only because I love it. I know that seems pardoxical, but it's true. I hate the fact that so many liberties were taken with characters and historical events, in particular because this time period of British history is so critical and deserves an accurate retelling. On the other hand, it's a total guilty pleasure of mine to sit down and watch this show. If I perceive it as a soap opera in historical dress, then I can't get enough of it. It has the makings of everything you'd ever want in a trashy soap opera. The writing is strong (most of the time), the costumes are gorgeous, and the settings are fabulous. Even more important, everyone young is sexy: the women are beautiful and the men are hot (Rhys Meyers may be the king, but it's Henry Cavill as his best friend Charles Brandon, the Duke of Suffolk, who makes me pause and replay in slow-motion every time he appears on the screen!). There are sexual romps, musical feasts, battle scenes, not to mention execution after execution, involving quite a few of the major figures too. Is it all over the top at times? Totally. But isn't that how a soap opera is supposed to be? Still, I should mention that two actors stand out for their superb performances: Sam Neill as Cardinal Thomas Wolsey (Season 1) and Jeremy Northam as Sir Thomas More (Season 1 and some of Season 2). Both of them should be noted out for their excellent performances. And I can say that Episode 7 from the first season, when the "sweating sickness" affects them, is one of the most disturbing episodes to me. It makes you realize how in that age death literally waited for you around any corner. Think about this: by the age of 25, nearly 1 out of every 3 people you had known already in your life probably would have died already, assuming you even had made it to 25 years of age. It makes you realize how far we have advanced in medical treatments.
So I admit it, I'm addicted to The Tudors. Season 3 starts in a few weeks on Showtime which, alas, I do not subscribe to. But I will be patient and await its arrival on DVD hopefully by later in the year. The new season is supposed to recount Henry's marriages to wives 3, 4, and 5. Does that mean we'll have another season for the last wife? I guess we'll have to see. Personally, I think they should keep it going, let Henry die as eventually will happen, and then continue the series with his children. After all, it's about the Tudor family, not just Henry, isn't it? I wonder if Michael Hirst is listening...