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2014/02/09

The Tudors

by Lisa Adamowicz Kless


I was just reading something in a magazine about the phenomenon of “binge watching” TV series on Netflix, Hulu, or other sites.  Binge watching TV shows has become a sometimes weekly habit for me, and one of the very first series that I indulged in was The Tudors.  I remember seeing the show advertised when it first came out and thinking it looked interesting, but not having cable TV or satellite, I missed out.  Then, while browsing through Netflix one day, I found it, and promptly watched four or five shows in a row.

The series revolves around King Henry the Eighth and his kingdom, including all of his infamous marriages to a slew of ill-fated queens.  Beginning when Henry is a young man, it follows him until the time of his death (Henry died in 1547 at the age of 55).  Jonathan Rhys Meyers plays Henry, and although I have to admit that I haven’t seen him act in many other projects, one of the things that struck me about his portrayal here was the subtle physicality of his acting.  So much about the character of Henry is told by the expressions on Rhys Meyers’ face, or other slight mannerisms and gestures, especially as  an injury to his leg worsens and becomes more painful over the years.  As the King grows older on the show, he even changes the pitch and tone of his voice to reflect Henry’s aging.

In the US, The Tudors appeared on Showtime, and that website warns that the series has “nudity, violence, (and) adult content”.  And indeed it does; not much is left to the imagination when they show Henry’s trysts with the women who are constantly being summoned to his private chambers, or any of the other steamy love scenes between other characters, so children and sensitive viewers, take heed.

Yet, if there’s anything about Henry’s reign that has fascinated--any possibly horrified--people over the centuries, it’s probably those very same trysts and his succession of wives and their fates, and The Tudors doesn’t skimp when it comes to that subject.  One of the most interesting things to watch were the dynamics between Henry and each queen, and how different some of them were from each other.  I don’t know exactly how much is creative license and how much is historical, but from the bit of research that I’ve done, I know that there are at least some accuracies.  Henry’s relationship with his first wife, Queen Catherine (his brother’s widow, played by Maria Doyle Kennedy), is followed throughout the show, and while their marriage was declared invalid so that he could marry a mistress, Anne Boleyn, The Tudors depicts Henry as maintaining a level of respect, and even fondness, for Catherine.  Like Rhys Meyers’ portrayal of Henry, Doyle Kennedy’s acting is top notch, and I found myself sympathizing with Catherine, and understanding why Henry would sustain his respect for her, even after all of the turmoil attached to their marriage and separation.  When the King moves on to his second marriage, Natalie Dormer’s fine acting did mostly the opposite, and made me cringe at the character of Anne Boleyn and her calculated manipulation.  Still, as much as I couldn’t bring myself to like her, it’s made clear that, while she had ambitions to become Queen by any means necessary, she was still a pawn in a powerful game of status and politics.

Henry (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) and his unfortunate second queen, Anne Boleyn (Natalie Dormer)
As the series continues, Henry marries Jane Seymour (Annabelle Wallis), a kind and gentle-natured woman who produces the male heir, Prince Edward VI, that he so desperately wants.  After she dies from complications of childbirth, the King is paired with Anne of Cleves (played by British singer Joss Stone). Here too, the dynamic between Henry and this wife is interesting, because while he starts out raving to those closest to him that he can’t stand her, the relationship between them evolves after their marriage is ended. The King marries again and (again) has a Queen executed (this time, Katherine Howard, played by Tamzin Merchant).  But as the series starts to draw to a close, it’s the only Queen to survive Henry, Catherine Parr (Joely Richardson), who seems to command a similar level of respect that the first Queen, Catherine, did.

Not stopping at the relationships the King had with his spouses, the show delves into the relationships that he had with his children, and they with each other.  Not always a warm and involved father, I had to stop myself during certain scenes and remember that it wasn’t necessarily a complete reflection of who Henry was as a person, but that the customs of that time would’ve had an impact too.  Showing this side of the King’s life gives the audience bits of foreshadowing too, since his son and both of his daughters, Mary and Elizabeth, would have turns as the reigning monarch after his death. 

Henry's daughters, Elizabeth (Laoise Murray) and Mary (Sarah Bolger) 
It may be time to stop here for a second and mention a couple of the other things that I loved about this series: the scenery and the costumes.  Shot in Ireland, the natural locations and the sets are beautiful, and add just one more layer to the feel of authenticity.  Then there's the exquisite wardrobe of the royals, their court, and anyone of social standing.  Down to the most minute detail, the costumes, jewelry, and accessories are dazzlingly rich and opulent.  Costume designer Joan Bergin and her crew won "Outstanding Costumes for a Series" Emmy Awards in 2007, 2008, and 2010 for their work.

Under all of those lavish costumes, maybe the biggest achievement of The Tudors and Jonathan Rhys Meyers in his role is the ability of getting the audience to empathize with Henry, but then just as we start to almost like him, he does something disgraceful that starts to make us reconsider. Even as we’re appalled though, we can often see the pressures and expectations placed upon him, and how sometimes it sways his judgment or forces his hand.  Then we’re right back on the rollercoaster of emotion, not sure of how we feel about him.  In doing this, the series and Rhys Meyers made me pause and consider what I knew about Henry VIII, and how I might have just bought into the image of him that’s been created throughout history. Whether or not the TV show has any of the nuances right, it made me view Henry in a new light, and how even as ruling monarch, there were pressures and protocols that may have limited him or even forced in his hand in some situations.

To get back to the subject of the many great actors in this series--and trust me, there are a lot--Henry Cavill appears in every episode as Charles Brandon, the Duke of Suffolk, and one of Henry’s closest and most trusted friends.  There’s almost constant, subtle tension, watching how Cavill’s character has to walk the fine line between friendship and still being careful not to overstep his bounds and duty to his king.  The most dramatic example of this is when the Duke falls in love with Henry's sister, Princess Margaret (played by Gabrielle Anwar), and marries her in secret.  (The show takes some liberties with history here.  In reality, Henry had two younger sisters, and the series' story line is partially made up, though one sister did marry the Duke of Suffolk in secret.)

Charles Brandon (Henry Cavill) and King Henry VIII (Jonathan Rhys Meyers)

Those politics (and a hefty dose of betrayal and revenge) heighten the drama of the show.  Again though, we have to remember that parts of it are historically true, so it’s not entirely a gimmick to boost viewership.

Sure, The Tudors can't be relied on as a completely accurate historical work; it's a TV series, and of course they're in the business of bringing in viewers and boosting ratings.  I challenge anyone who has an interest in history not to get caught up in the series though.  From the first episode, it drew me in, and started me on a path of binge-watching that I've repeated with other shows, but not many with the same fervor of The Tudors.  I burned through the seasons in no time flat, and enjoyed every single episode.


To find out more, visit the series' page on IMDb, or visit The Tudors' page on the Showtime website.



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