The Tudors: The First Season Review
Posted by therebelprince on July 14, 2009
Michael Hirst is no stranger to Tudor costume dramas, having chronicled the end of the line in his Elizabeth films. Here, we’re going back to the beginning (as his star used to say in the opening credits) to see the first season of his pop history lesson, The Tudors.
At heart, The Tudors is a speedy look at the 1520s through the eyes of King Henry VIII (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, left) and those around him. Rhys-Meyers has received a lot of press about his approach to the role: his Henry is a slightly petulant rockstar of a King, and the actor has had no qualms rejecting the offer of a fat suit. I’m actually somewhat of a fan (although as you’ll see in this review and the following two, he waxes and wanes), but it must be said the strongest element of this show are some of his co-stars: the sublime Maria Doyle Kennedy as his first wife, Queen Catherine of Aragon; Jeremy Northam as the martyr Sir Thomas More (who we’ll discuss in detail in the second season review); and that king of lesser historical dramas, Sam Neill. Neill’s Cardinal Wolsey is pitch-perfect: his ambition and his sycophantic nature are neatly balanced by his wisdom and his awareness of the truth of the King’s actions. (I’ve been told by some that his Wolsey doesn’t bare much relation to the truth, but in Neill’s case I’ll let that slide.
Passable in their roles are Henry Cavill (the King’s best friend Charles Brandon) and Natalie Dormer (his coquettish mistress Anne Boleyn), both of whom exist primarily to take their clothes off – in the hopes (albeit successful) of distracting the audience from the paucity of the writing. Unfortunately, this first season is the show’s absolute nadir: I don’t express too much concern over the historical inaccuracies (better people than me have catalogued every single instance of those). In essence, however, we get a rather simplistic view of Henry VIII’s “early years” – although for a show that promoted itself as the early years, it sure seems in a hurry to get through the wives – and, most disgracefully for some fans, his sisters Margaret and Mary become one person personified by Gabrielle Anwar, who then mysteriously dies before season’s end. Given that this now deprives us of descendants (and future monarchs) Mary, Queen of Scots and the Lady Jane Grey, I really wonder what Hirst was thinking. But I daresay he knew that Rhys-Meyers would be the show’s trump card – and it would never outlast Henry himself.
In supporting roles, Kris Holden-Reid is particularly effecting as the gay young knight and friend of Henry; Henry Czerny is fascinating the Duke of Norfolk; and Nick Dunning gets some good lines in as Anne Boleyn’s pimp of a father Thomas.
(Right: Henry Cavill. The reason we’re watching?)
Callum Blue (Sir Anthony Knivert) and Joe Van Moyland (composer Thomas Tallis, who gets his name anachronistically muddied by his poor treatment here) get saddled with subplots that could barely be called subplots, and both of the actors would mysteriously vanish when the second season began. (Czerny also left, but this was reportedly due to dissatisfaction with the character).
The writing, to be frank, is largely terrible. At many times, the show seems to be following the mold of Dynasty: a dinner party at the Boleyn household is full of gibes that wouldn’t feel out of place amongst the Carringtons. Costuming is beautiful (although reportedly innacurate). Rhys-Meyers‘ Henry seems more like a spoiled brat than the King of England, although it must be said he looks absolutely stunning throughout – particularly during his many dalliances, and in that strange scene at the start of the final episode where he, well … helps offload some Tudor heirs, if you know what I mean.
Fans have taken various exceptions to portrayals, particularly of the two Queens featured here, but I think both do well even if their parts conflict with historical record. This series is unashamed in showing the darker side of Anne, and while Dormer is not the world’s strongest actress, she takes the task admirably. Maria Doyle Kennedy – tying with Northam as the standout cast member – is simply elegant as Catherine of Aragon, who gets some of the best scenes during the climactic trial sequence.
The show’s attempt to condense history results in some odd little moments: a plague sweeps England and is gone before anyone can blink, for example. On the other hand, no one appears to have visibly aged between the opening and the closing scenes.
Perhaps inevitably, the show has been compared by some fans to HBO’s Rome. I’m not sure comparisons are apt – both are dramas about historical periods, but that’s about the only connection. I think that when Rome was soapy, it was soapier than this. But even at its lowest, Rome had an atmosphere that this show sometimes lacks. Its characters still thought and felt like we might read in our Suetonius. It’s peculiar to witness scenes of high court drama up against scenes of very noughties manner and debauchery. (Not that I chasten the series for showing the dirty side of life; it just sometimes seems very unbelievable when the mousy young Tallis finds twin sisters in his bed, posing naked ala “Two Nudes Bathing”). Bessie Blount (Ruta Gedmintas) gets in a few good scenes early on, while Mary Boleyn (Perdita Weeks) is mostly wasted, in the show’s effort to portray Henry’s obsession with Anne.
(Left: The reason we should be watching – Maria Doyle Kennedy)
All in all, this series is an elegant disappointment. As a candid soap operafeaturing glorious costumes and beautiful naked people, it works very well. The court intrigue is hammed up nicely, and some of the more dramatic scenes – Wolsey’s downfall, the Princess’ travel to Portugal – are handled well. As usual with Michael Hirst, the problem isn’t in the external, it is with the internal.
Thankfully, with each passing season the show would pick up a bit of steam, but this is raw campy Tudors fun.
Also seen: Padraic Delaney for a few moments as George Boleyn, and the beautiful Jamie Thomas King as poet Thomas Wyatt. Both of these gentlemen will play a significant role in season II.
Seen briefly: Emmanuel Leconte as French King Louis; Anthony Brophy as the wonderfully compassionate Spanish Ambassador; and Pope Clement (Ian McElhinnerly), who will be cruelly written out of the show next season to accommodate one of television’s most bizarre cameos.
Tune in next week!