Review: 'The Tudors' on Showtime
Either way, The Tudors is a series made for people who like a little splash of history mixed in with their soap operas, rather than people who like a little soap opera mixed in with their history.
In a commanding performance that covers for all sorts of flaws in creator Michael Hirst's scripts, Jonathan Rhys Meyers plays Henry VIII, a young king who has no resemblance at all to the red-headed, bearded portraits by Hans Holbein. He is, as Showtime's promo department promises, the rock star of his time. He's married to Catherine of Aragon (Maria Doyle Kennedy), but her inability to produce a male off-spring (plus the ready availability of comely wenches) has Henry sleeping with a variety of lovely ladies. When he bothers to interrupt his coitus, Henry is an enthusiastic athlete, jousting and wrestling with his entourage (including Henry Cavill's Charles Brandon and Callum Blue's Knivert).
He has political and spiritual concerns as well, but he can turn to his closest advisors -- the shady, underhanded Cardinal Wolsey (Sam Neill) and the devout, scholarly Thomas More (Jeremy Northam, bound to be more interesting in the season's second half).
As the opening voiceover notes, we know where the story's going, so there's great pleasure in the arrival of Anne Boleyn (Natalie Dormer), presenting as the quintessential Witchy Woman, a mistress prone to come-hither glances and wanton pouts. How could Henry VIII resist?
Hirst, responsible for all of the Tudors scripts, also wrote the script for the Oscar nominated Elizabeth. Here he exhibits a similar gift for ignoring facts and period authenticity in favor of making nearly every character sound like an exile from The Godfather. It's all part of making these 500-year-old characters seem contemporary in the same way that HBO has had success letting viewers know that blue language, raunchy sex and graphic violence existed in both ancient Rome and the Old West. While historians will quibble on the color of Anne Boleyn's eyes or the fact that Henry VIII never had a sister who killed the King of Portugal, fans of bodice-ripping and courtly intrigue say things like "It's a TV show, not a term paper."
Through its first six episodes, The Tudors is still more waiting than gratification (a bit like Henry's initial dalliances with Anne). We do indeed know what's coming, but there's a very real sense that none of the good stuff will happen this season and that Hirst is creating side drama to distract from two or three episodes where the King is nothing more than a love-struck (and dramatically dull) fool.
That Rhys Meyers remains intriguing even in those hours where he does little more than pine is a tribute to his intense and physical work in certain other episodes. While the script soft-pedals the idea of Henry as an intellectual, Rhys Meyers contributes a certain amount of under-the-surface wisdom. My major problem is that while I fully believed the leading man as regal, I rarely connected him with actually being Henry VIII.
Rhys Meyers is a known quantity, unlike Dormer, who I'd mostly repressed along with the rest of the mess that was Casanova. Here, even when all she's asked to do is provide lusty looks, she's a knockout, beguiling beyond the sum of her somewhat unconventional features. I look forward to the season's second half, when she might actually get to do something.
Also notable are Doyle Kennedy (surprisingly Spanish for an Irish lass), Cavill -- women who didn't know him before will fall in love -- and James Frain, whose late arrival as Thomas Cromwell portents good things to come.
Production values on The Tudors are high, but the high-toned gloss is distracting. It's one thing that the actors are too pretty, but the costumes are too shiny and colorful, the sets too clean, the computer generated castles and manors too perfect.
The Tudors starts with a slightly misleading quantity of sex, as if the best way to lure viewers is with the notion that everybody in Henry VIII's court was model-gorgeous and bopping like bunnies. That's the show's hook and it's probably a good one -- since the history's a bit of a crock anyway, it's the steamy underbelly that holds the most allure.
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