Friday, November 23, 2012

TV Review: The Tudors (2007)

What pushed me to finally read Wolf Hall (and you should all read it, seriously, do it now) was finishing the Showtime series The Tudors, and being desperate for more. Partly because the series reawakened an interest of mine for English history and partly because it failed to deliver on quite a few fronts and I needed some kind of satisfying conclusion. That's not to say it's a bad series, but it's rather one-sided and trips over its own feet from time to time.

The biggest problem the show struggles with is sex. Undoubtedly the original pitch for this show was "attractive ye olde English King has sex with everything that moves, and then beheads bitches and stuff". Yes, Henry the VIII had 6 wives and countless mistresses, but the problem with centring a series around sex is that it makes it very difficult to show the characters in a bad light. No one wants to see the sex king get old, or invalid, or deal with the paperwork associated with being the head of an empire. It also, unless you're a porn addict, gets old pretty quick.

The series takes place between 1491 and 1547, and it's only in the last episode that Jonathan Rhys Meyers looks significantly older. Before then it wasn't advantageous to have a lecherous old king with the young women he chose as brides, not really TV friendly. Sure, they changed his hair style, put him in slightly bulkier clothes and added a few creases around his eyes during the last season or two, but considering how much weight Henry VIII gained and how gross history reports he became it's kind of laughable. Not to mention the Pantomime-esque old man voice Meyers employs to get across his old age.

"old" Henry VIII
As someone watching the show for the history and not just the sex, the lack of aging makes it extremely difficult to tell how much time has passed. Is it a matter of weeks, months or years between Jane Seymour and Anne of Cleves? Who knows, since EVERYONE LOOKS THE SAME. It also doesn't help that aside from Anne Boleyn and Catherine of Aragon who get 2 seasons, each of the other queens get about 4-5 episodes each. This means they're basically cardboard cut-outs there to  move the story along for the king, but with very little personality or motivation of their own. Because the show isn't badly written though, you get these bright little glimpses at who the queen could be if they were given the time and space to develop properly as a character. Yes, aside from the first two queens the others didn't have lengthy posts as Queen but they had more than enough time to have a personality.

BUT, complaints aside, this isn't a bad show. In fact, it's quite a good show. I'm not sure I'd say I'm a Jonathan Rhys Meyers fan, but Sam Neil (Cardinal Wolsey), Henry Cavill (Charles Brandon) and Maria Doyle Kennedy (Catherine of Aragon), amongst others, were unbelievably good and really elevated the program to great heights. Even the singer Joss Stone who played Anne of Cleves was good, something I had not expected when I saw her name listed on IMDB.

And once the Anne Boleyn story is finished, the show manages to look wider than their court, especially in relation to the riots and systematic execution of countless Englishmen/women/children who didn't agree with Henry as head of church. Prior to that, the break from church was mostly seen as it related to the union of Anne and Henry and the whispers that abounded in court. After that, the realities set in, and the whole disastrous event is beautifully and heartbreakingly played out on the screen.

Visually is where this show hits its greatest heights. the costumes are phenomenal and subtly reflect the history and future of each character, the locations are selected with care and the composition of the shots and editing choices clearly were meticulously crafted. The shots outside of London were always great examples of this, but perhaps it was the executions that best reflected the care and talent that went into this show. The monologues that each character gave before death were some of the best writing of the show, but visually, wow, visually they really hit it out of the park. The death of Catherine Howard, in particular, stood out as both tragic and beautiful when I watched it, and utterly captivating.

I guess it was a bit of an experiment, an attempt to bank on the popularity of history (especially when it involves sex) and translate the big screen events such as Elizabeth to TV. Ultimately I'd say that in spite of the flaws, the over-sexed narrative and over-attractive (and youthful) cast and historical inaccuracies aside, the series was a success and worth a watch. Just be ready to roll your eyes and cringe a few times.

death comes riding.


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