'The Tudors': Huzzah for Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk

Today's cuppa: English breakfast tea (of course)

Tudors_Henry_Cavill_chainmail 7-21-2008 9-29-49 AM.jpgFirst up, let's be clear that I'm talking about Charles Brandon, 1st Duke of Suffolk, but not the real guy, who seems equally interesting but, unfortunately, was not scripted by Michael Hirst nor played by Henry Cavill.

'Tis a pity, Your Grace.

Ostensibly, Showtime's lavish historical drama "The Tudors," which wraps up its run on Sunday, was about King Henry VIII, played with great verve and awesome abs by Jonathan Rhys Meyers (click here then search for "codpiece" to find my 2008 interview with Mr. Meyers), but for me, it became all about Charles Brandon.

(OK, It was also all about the embroidery, the furs, the jewels, the set design and the horses, but all of those looked better when draped in or around Henry Cavill.)

I have no complaints about Meyers' Henry, who didn't look much like the real thing but captured the king's passion, eccentricity, narcissism, intelligence, capriciousness, bluster, grandiloquence, desperation and pathos.

But in terms of a man, the Henry of "The Tudors" doesn't hold a candle to Brandon, his lifelong friend, general, confidante and occasional whipping boy.

Wild in youth, brave and true in maturity, kind and dignified at the end, Brandon was, to me, the soul and conscience of the show. He may not have been born to the purple (but truly, many in England didn't consider Henry's blood very blue), but he excelled his royal master in wisdom, compassion and physical courage.

Much of the credit for this goes to Hirst, who turned Brandon into a shadow King, an echo of what Henry might have become had he not been thrust into a role which, as a second son, he didn't anticipate, if he hadn't been so insecure about not producing a son, and had he not become consumed by his unfortunate attractions and lust for adulation and control.

Brandon learned to love well for a day when married to Margaret Tudor, then truly learned to Thumbnail image for Tudors_Henry_Cavill_ruffle 8-13-2009 12-55-58 PM.jpg love when he married his young ward, only to lose her love when his loyalty to the King forced him to commit terrible acts in putting down a rebellion. After years alone, he found love again with a French girl he met during a battle, but as you will see in the finale, his love for his King always comes first.

Ultimately, as happened so often during the show, Henry proved unable to be worthy of that love.

Kings are but men favored by fortune, but still subject to all the weaknesses, errors and failings of men. Henry cut a wide swath through his nation, leaving human and social wreckage in his wake in his quest to produce an heir. Brandon held his tongue and tried to obey his king's wishes, suffering great losses -- many not of his own doing -- but never losing his soul.

As the finale airs, and Henry faces a final reckoning, there's some doubt that he can say the same.

The rest of the credit for Brandon goes to Cavill, an intriguing actor blessed with classic good looks and charm, but who also brought weight and gravitas to the character. It's not easy to be dashing and soulful at the same time, but he pulled it off.

I'll be very interested to see where Cavill turns up next -- and I'm sorry it probably won't be in chain mail or a velvet doublet, aboard a horse, but a tuxedo and a martini -- shaken, not stirred -- would do just as well.

And while I'm at it, I'd like to throw props at actress Sarah Bolger, who has been luminous and arresting in her portrayal of Henry's eldest daughter, Mary, whose mother was the discarded Queen Katherine of Aragon (or Catherine, depending on the source).

Thumbnail image for Tudors_Sarah_Bolger_furs 8-14-2009 12-24-25 PM.jpgLike Katherine, Mary was a Roman Catholic, and since winners write the history, Anglican England was not kind to either woman -- and screenwriters have often followed suit. Katherine is usually dismissed quickly at the beginning of stories about Henry VIII, in order to get on to the sexier and more controversial wives.

Mary fares even worse, portrayed merely as "Bloody Mary," a single-minded, vindictive religious fanatic, a figure of ridicule and scorn but never pity and understanding. In the hands of Hirst and Bolger, Mary comes to life for the first time as an abandoned yet loving daughter of a viciously broken marriage, tossed hither and thither at the whim of her powerful father, who maintained her heart, her faith and her composure in the face of grief, rejection and loss.

Bravo to both, and I'm a little sad that we will not see the Tudor saga continue to Mary's reign, which, if "The Tudors" is any indication, would do much to humanize history's cruel caricature. Hirst even indulged in a bit of that in his portrayal of the adult Queen Mary in the 1998 feature film "Elizabeth," so perhaps the Princess/Lady Mary of "The Tudors" was partly a counterbalance.

Whether Henry VIII or Elizabeth I, the Tudors loom large over world history, but if I was throwing an afternoon tea, I'd rather have Suffolk at one end and Mary at the other any day.