The Tudors (2007-2010)
**** out of 5
‘You think you know a story, but you only know how it ends’ warns King Henry (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) during the opening credits of The Tudors. A title sequence that goes on to show the titillating removal of bodices and tantalising heaving of bosoms; certainly not the story GSCE History tells.
After his opening counsel, Henry goes on to state that ‘to get to the heart of the story, you have to go back to the beginning…’, and this is indeed where the heart of The Tudors beats most engagingly. The first season focuses on the breaking of Henry’s marriage to Katherine of Aragon (Maria Doyle Kennedy), as he turns his attentions ever more voraciously towards the tempting Anne Boleyn (Natalie Dormer); whilst the following season goes on to depict their subsequently tempestuous and turbulent relationship. Dormer plays Anne with vibrancy and wickedness, whilst still allowing a naïve and at times desperate desire for love to seep through, and thus when this courtship inevitably ends with the loss of her head, so the show itself loses something too.
That said, Anne is one of a number of intriguing characters portrayed in the show whose popularity, with both the King and audiences, rises and falls as often as a mistress’ petticoat. The slide of one such, the scheming yet sad Cardinal Wolsey (Sam Neill) in season one, gives rise to the infamous Thomas Cromwell, played with ever increasing villainous verve by James Frain. Yet the throne around which the palace is built is undoubtedly Meyers himself, who gives us a Henry for the 21st century, blood, thunder and all. His brooding rage provides energy, intensity and tension throughout, and although it can become slightly one track at times, Meyers does show glimmers of diversity, particularly during the surreal scenes of melancholic mania following the death of Jane Seymour (Annabelle Wallis). Henry aside, the only other key character to feature in the show’s entire run is Charles Brandon (Henry Cavill), who provides a fascinating counterpoint to the King and is in many ways a more well rounded and tangible character.
The show’s creator Michael Hirst, has stated that although the events are obviously based on historical fact he wanted to create an entertainment show, not history; something that is certainly apparent throughout with regards to Henry’s appearance, timeline discrepancies and the unrealistic, regal beauty of everybody at court (even the supposedly hideous Anne of Cleves is played by an incurably smiley Joss Stone). In spite of this, as an entertainment programme, based in fact, The Tudors is very enjoyable. As a history (and particularly Tudor) geek myself, my opinion may ultimately be tinged with bias, but to see such intriguing and previously text book dwelling characters conjured into flesh and farthingales, however accurately, is most pleasing.
The one facet above all that keeps The Tudors so appealing is its devious dynamic. We see the sly, sycophantic courtiers snaking their way around the King and into his good graces and all the while juggling the near impossible task of restraining and satisfying their rambunctious ruler. At times it is easy to empathise with Henry, as we are privy to plots in which he is simply a pawn as one of his counsel attempts to gain favour, often at the expense of another. Yet equally we are shown how unrelentingly difficult and fickle the King his, his whims changing more often than his wives or continental allies.
Thus although the final season ends with Henry at death’s door, it is unfortunate that a show called The Tudors ends somewhat prematurely, without exploring the rest of the family. Some may argue that without Meyers the show would be less engaging or powerful, yet although the political one-upmanship mentioned above may be lost, the reigns of Edward and Mary in particular would provide their own riveting narrative dynamics. With regards to the story actually told however, The Tudors provides fascinating fun from start to finish. And since it ends as we knew it would, there seems only one appropriate thing to say – the King is dead, long live the King.