Off with their heads!

The Tudors  stoops to conquer
By JON GARELICK  |  April 15, 2008

BELLISSIMO! At least The Tudors gives Peter O’Toole an opportunity to strut his stuff.

The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933) with Charles Laughton ran through all six wives in 97 minutes. By the end of the first season of Showtime’s The Tudors — seven hours — Henry was still married to his first wife, Katherine of Aragon, and had yet to consummate his relationship with Anne Boleyn. So Showtime appears committed to the long haul — if the series really does intend to follow the line until Elizabeth breathes her last, then it could survive longer than The Sopranos and The Wire combined.

And why not? The Tudors (Sundays at 9 pm) has all the trappings of Masterpiece Theatre artiness: the detailed period costumes and sets, the impeccably trained British cast to chew it all up. There’s even some nice writing in some of the speeches. But don’t kid yourself: this is trashy costume drama, albeit of a particularly tasty sort. Yes, there is plenty of palace intrigue, a skewed history lesson or two, but the plot line is stretched most taut by the simple contingencies of sex and death. Who will Henry get it on with next, and when? And who’s next in line for the bloody chop?

Michael Hirst, the show’s creator, has already copped to wholesale fictionalization of historical fact in the service of melodrama. It wasn’t enough for Cardinal Wolsey to die on his way to London to face trial for treason — Sam Neill had delivered too magnificently over the course of six episodes to be dispatched by mere illness. So he cuts his own throat. And it’s Pope Paul III who excommunicates Henry, not predecessor Clement VII, simply because a new actor had come in to play Paul — and not just any actor but Peter O’Toole. Exit Clement, enter O’Toole.

There have been some historical niceties, however, like the depiction of the mysterious “sweating sickness” (not the Plague) that killed thousands and sent Henry galloping across the kingdom, never staying in one place too long. And there are the extended debates and intrigues over the king’s “great matter” — his desire to divorce Katherine and wed Anne in defiance of the Catholic Church — including Jeremy Northam’s eloquent turn as Thomas More.

Poor Jeremy Northam — he scored the juicy part of More but then had to suffer an acting contest by proxy when Paul Scofield (the Oscar-winning More from A Man for All Seasons) died at the beginning of the second season. Northam really does give it his all — diffident, impassioned, not craving martyrdom but willing to face it in order to save his soul. And this isn’t Scofield’s saintly, all-too-perfect More. “How many have you burned, Thomas?” intones Henry. “Six,” answers More, a bit sheepishly. “But they were well done.”

Meanwhile, there’s studly Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Henry — not the actual plump fortysomething who pursued Anne, but 30, buff and bare-armed, fucking every maiden in sight, steam coming out his ears as one royal petition after another is denied. It’s a bit of a two-note performance (anger and lust), but fun. And who can’t sympathize when, trying to stay true to the supposedly unplucked Anne (Natalie Dormer), he struggles mightily to relieve himself with a royal jerk while a servant holds the royal napkin?

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