The Tudors: Season Three Review
Posted by therebelprince on July 23, 2009
As we enter the third quarter of Showtime’s marvellously campy The Tudors (see my earlier reviews of season one and season two,) a lot has changed. For a start, we’re down to only three of the original cast members – Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Henry Cavill and James Frain. The mood at court has changed in the 17 or 18 years since the show started, but no one really looks any different. In fact, possibly due to his much publicised drug and alcohol problems, Rhys-Meyers looks scrawnier than he ever has when stripped down. (Not that this reviewer is complaining).
Above: Max Brown as Edward Seymour, Henry Cavill as Charles Brandon and Alan Van Sprang as Francis Bryan: three characters who will hopefully redeem their season 3 presence in the show’s final season.
The season is eight episodes, abbreviated a bit from previous ones, and so it seems to go at a much faster pace. When the season opens, Henry is marrying Jane Seymour (now played by Annabelle Wallis, who reportedly replaced the bland Anita Briem due to the latter’s refusal to do nudity… which is odd since we never see Jane in any state of undress). With his reformation well underway, Henry and chief advisor Thomas Cromwell (Frain) set about enforcing their beliefs. Many give in, while some do not. Gerald McSorley takes the fore of the rebels as Robert Aske, who leads a rebellion against the King and his beliefs. McSorley is joined by a wonderful supporting cast, including Colm Wilkinson of Les Miserables fame, and we finally get a full understanding of the horror of Henry’s ways.
McSorley absorbs himself into the character of Aske and, while his supporting characters are never fully drawn due to the three-and-a-bit episodes that cover the rebellion, he provides an impressive opponent to Rhys-Meyers’ Henry. Jonathan is at his strongest this season, in my opinion. Probably thanks to some good direction, he restrains on the “I’m the King of England!” exuberance which made season one Henry so petulant and boyish, and ends up a much more nuanced and mellow King by season’s end. With his sex life relatively restrained until season’s end, we’re given plenty of chances to understand Henry as a man. His relationships with Jane Seymour and Anne of Cleves (an impressive Joss Stone), the former true love and the latter revoltion, are a nice change from the sexual, scheming King of seasons past. At the same time, thanks to his crushing of the rebellion – done, of course, through intermediaries like Cromwell and Charles Brandon – we also understand him as the tyrant who caused so many thousands of people to die.
Also among those forced to recant is the Lady Mary Tudor, Henry’s eldest daughter. As brought to life by Sarah Bolger (left), she is a fascinating and fully realised character. Mary is desperately seeking a husband, and with the help of the lovely Ambassador Chapuys (Anthony Brophy) finds a potential mate. It’s sweet to see this woman, so often seen only at the bloody end of her career, as a teenager – which she must have been at some point – and her youthful enthusiasm is infectiously conveyed. By the end of the season, when she loses her chance at love and begins to fear she will never find it, we get a hint at the woman who will become Bloody Mary, and it’s wonderful. In a weak subplot, Mary and Elizabeth bond as they giggle at night over their baby brother. It’s painfully contrived, tastes like treacle, and historically has no basis, but I hope it exists so that we can see this relationship crumble next season. If nothing else, it will be good to see Bolger get lots of screen time as the series comes to its end.
Henry’s relationship with Jane Seymour starts strong and remains so. It is a credit to Rhys-Meyers and Wallis that we feel this, even though we get about half-a-dozen scenes with them across Jane’s four episodes. It’s unfortunate that we see so little of them in private,although a credit to historical accuracy that they’re so regularly surrounded by servants. When she contracts an illness during childbirth, Jane dies and Henry is left with his grief, but also a son: Edward. His mourning for Jane is movingly conveyed in episodes four and five, although we begin to wonder psychologically if the reason for this intense love was her or merely her ability to provide him with an heir. Either way, Wallis (below) is sincere and the series benefits from her presence.
The series is neatly divided into two parts, with the first ending with the destruction of Aske’s revolution, and the birth of the heir.
In the second half, the core cast get to play to their strengths without so many secondary figures, as Henry spends a couple of years unmarried . As Thomas Cromwell, James Frain is wonderful to watch – on one level a toadlike conspirator, on another a handsome Renaissance man. Frain has a face that is effortlessly watchable, and Cromwell benefits a great deal as a character because of this. As a leading prosecutor in Henry’s reformation, Cromwell’s inner morals sharply conflict with his external rise to power. It’s interesting to see his growing rivalry with Charles Brandon (doubling here as the Duke of Norfolk since Henry Czerny left the show). It remains mostly an undercurrent, since Brandon has other things going on by the time of Cromwell’s downfall, but this season at least the show actually deigns to treat the political storylines as equal to the romantic ones.
Cavill gets some good moments after a lacklustre second season, as he returns to being the King’s right-hand man (well, there’s really no-one else left!) and begins doing all of his dirty work. But with each passing act, it begins to take a strain on his morals and his wife (Rebekah Wainwright) is ever the angel on his side turning him against the King. I’ll be interested to see where this goes next year: will Charles Brandon primarily take the Duke of Norfolk route, and end up cheating death in the tower? Or will he become the cherished old friend who dies just before the King?
After much hunting, a wife is found for Henry under somewhat dubious circumstances. Anne of Cleves, a German lady, is brought to England to be his wife when his advisors conspire to get someone in the job no matter what it takes (and after some well-written rejection scenes from noblewomen who know the King’s reputation). Henry is revolted by his new bride (and historically she also was by him). Joss Stone (above), until now known as a singer and not an actor, brings an unexpectedly enjoyable performance as Anne: she’s frank and funny, and tries her best to fit in a foreign court. We see some nice camaraderie between her and Brandon, and later between her and the Lady Mary who is ultimately convinced to take the Oath and come to court in her father’s favour.
Disgusted by Anne, who is completely unaware of social graces (or how to please him in the bedroom), Henry makes the compassionate choice, annuling his never-consummated marriage to his fourth wife, and allowing Anne to go on living as the King’s “sister”. (Which, thankfully, will allow us to see more of the very talented and very humble Stone in the fourth and final season).
As he begins to fall from the King’s favour after the Anne of Cleves incident, Cromwell finds himself fighting a losing battle and is ultimately imprisoned in the tower, as is Margaret Pole (Kate O’Toole), the last of the Plantagenet legacy, and her family. Henry’s swift order to have them exceuted is merciless and heartbreaking. We don’t get to see Lady Pole’s death, which must rank in the Top 10 of History’s Goriest Executions, but I don’t think we needed to. The family’s terror as they are taken away is affecting enough, and we get plenty of violence in Cromwell’s final hours, where his brutal execution verges on sickening. James Frain (left) was the last of those cast members who you can watch in any circumstance (previous members of that club include Jeremy Northam, Maria Doyle Kennedy and Sam Neill) so I’ll be intrigued to see if the final season can function without his intensity.
In a much-hyped performance akin to Peter O’Toole‘s last season, we get Max von Sydow this time as a Cardinal who seeks to bring down Henry and support Reginald Pole (Mark Hildreth). Von Sydow is strong and keen-eyed, and it’s nice that his storyline (assumedly a major element of the fourth season) is being seeded here, but he appears in even less scenes than O’ Toole did last season!
By season’s end, Henry has already found wife number five: Catherine Howard, played by Tamsin Merchant, who has received perhaps the most vitriol from fans. She was fostered by a woman who ran a brothel, is a giggling schoolgirl, and seems to provide only for the sexual side of Henry’s brain. Admittedly, nothing here is too far removed from historical speculation, but little of it falls under the banner of fact. More importantly, we’re given little indication of why the King is so fascinated by her, since she seems to be on the same level as the various servants who quickly satisfied his carnal desires in season one without moving on to the throne. Henry and Catherine don’t get married yet, but it’s evident that this is how the fourth season will open.
Meanwhile, we meet Alan van Sprang as Francis Bryan, a cad who spends most of the season engaging in the kind of sexual courtly subplots which occupied Henry Cavill and Callum Blue during season one. His subplot is enjoyable enough, and gives us the only rough and boisterous character that the season can boast, but it doesn’t seem to go anywhere and feels like Thomas Tallis-style filler. Then there are Jane Seymour’s two impossibly handsome brothers Edward (Max Brown) and Thomas (Andrew McNair). Both historically played major roles in the final years (and aftermath) of Henry’s reign, but here are primarily window dressing.
All in all, I’d argue that this is the strongest season of The Tudors thus far (even if it feels like either Jane or Anne could have held the bulk of a season without being so hastily dismissed). It does lack any individual episodes as strong as those featuring the downfalls of Thomas More and the Boleyn family last season, but overall it has a cohesiveness and a maturity so lacking in the first two seasons.
Rhys-Meyers gets plenty to do this season, and he gives it his all. Henry’s love for Jane is truly moving, and the fifth episode – in which he locks himself away in grief with his court fool (David Bradley) – gives him a chance to showcase his talent. The sequence as a whole is not entirely successful (in fact, the dialogue never quite lives up to what the writers would like it to be, so it comess off as one of the season’s weakest moments), but it does allow us to see a Henry who is slightly losing his grip on reality. Henry’s very public disdain for Anne has been written off by many fans as a complete anachronism (in a time when, socially, he would have kept these feelings to a private level) but I suspect they are the first evidence that Henry’s mental faculties are spiralling. And if nothing else, Henry’s more reclusive moments allow the court intrigue plots to move forward at a steamship pace.
Henry, of course, remains as young and handsome as ever. By the end of this season we’re over 20 years since we began, but no one looks it. I suspect part of Rhys-Meyers’ scrawniness is due to his much-publicised substance abuse problems, and I really hope that he can pull himself together in life because he’s a talented actor when he’s well directed. But here, Michael Hirst shows no historical remorse as he continues to stride forward with an attractive Henry, who takes his clothes off whenever possible. In their defence, Henry’s most revealing scene is also his most disgusting: his leg wound, which rivals his obesity for most revolting aspect, continues to ail him (and it’s nice that it gives Anne a reason to dislike him, given his otherwise remarkable physical condition). While part of me thinks they’ll just keep the young, buff Henry throughout season four, I wouldn’t be surprised if the last episode suddenly finds him fat and old, for what Hirst will see as a fitting coda to the life of this Tudor monarch.
Below: Henry strips off, revealing that he’s looking very good for a 49-year-old.
It will be interesting to see what the fourth and final season brings when it airs sometime in 2010. We’ll get to see the scandalous and ill-fated fifth marriage of Henry to Catherine Howard, assumedly a bitter fall-out between the King and Charles Brandon, more of Sarah Bolger as the country’s future Queen, the climax of Max von Sydow‘s storyline, and Six Wives fans will have something more to bitch about, when Hirst and his team undoubtedly butcher the beautiful story of Henry’s final partner, Catherine Parr. (The producers have mentioned Gillian Anderson as their ideal candidate and while I’d love to see this magnificent woman tackle the role, I doubt this camp series can sign her). UPDATE: Joely Richardson, late of Nip/Tuck, has been cast as Parr.
I’ll be back in 2010 to review the final season of The Tudors week-by-week. Until then, check out my classic TV reviews, or go find out exactly how many thousands of ways this series can be nitpicked over at the Television Without Pity forum. And be sure to check out Pop Tudors! It’s hysterical, and educational! In fact, what are you still doing here?