I'm Henry the Eighth, I am!
Complete Second Season
4 out of 5 stars
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson
The second season of "The Tudors" is fit for a king or queen. What makes this 16th Century soap opera worth ten plus hours of ye precious tyme are the delicious moments of self-promotion and avarice provided by the show's supporting cast of lascivious lords, conniving courtesans, naughty knights and pompous papal pundits.
The DVD release of "The Tudors" gets the royal treatment with all ten hour-long episodes on 4-discs, plus special features including a pair of featurettes, cast biographies, candid on set photos and as a bonus treat - full episodes of four other popular Showtime series, "Dexter," "Californication," "This American Life" and "United States of Tara." All this opulence will make you lose your head.
The second season follows the ascension of Anne Boleyn to throne as Queen of England and the banishment of Catherine of Aragon, King Henry VIII's first wife. Smitten by Anne's beauty and her fiery outspokenness, and painfully aware that the pious Catherine, who gave birth to his daughter, Mary, may not be able or willing to produce the son and heir he craves, Henry seeks a divorce. But hold onto your knickers Hank -- the Roman Catholic Church, honchoed by Pope Paul III, disapproves of the idea of your divorcing Catherine. Infuriated by the refusal, as well as the Pope Paul's influence over his crown, Henry decides to break the powerful stranglehold the Roman Catholic Church has over him and his people. He names himself head of the Church of England, declaring it a separate entity not beholding to the whims of Pope John. Then he strips Catherine of her titles and sends her packing off to a desolate dank corner in More Castle. Fearing his daughter may conspire with her mother and loyalists overseas to overthrow him, he forbids Catherine to have any contact with Mary. His next in-your-face move is to name Anne Boleyn queen and declare that since his marriage to Catherine is annulled, making Mary illegitimate and thus unable to rule.
When the Archbishop of Canterbury goes to his great reward, Henry quickly steps in, naming Thomas Cranmer, an obscure cleric, to the position. Surprisingly, the Pope agrees with Henry's choice: "What better way to please the King of England than to make a nobody Bishop? What harm can a nobody do?" Unfortunately for Paulie, he's going to find out the hard way. Cranmer is Henry's puppet, and the King's got his hand right up Cranmer's backside and his moving his lips. In order to further cripple the Church, Henry charges Cranmer with drawing up a list of wealthy churches and monasteries he can tax out of existence. "The Reformation" has begun.
None of this Reformation stuff sits well with Sir Thomas More, Henry's loyal and highly spiritual Chancellor, who insists that only God can be the head of the church. More opposes the separation of church and state in a polite, dogmatic manner. Such opposition sets up the possibility that Henry's will end the dispute by separating Sir Thomas' head from his body. He insists More take the oath of loyalty, which More politely refuses all the way up the steps to the executioner. His act of protest makes More a martyr, and moves yet another Thomas (Cromwell) into a position of power. Cromwell and Cranmer form a profitable and eventually powerful alliance. Cranmer is initially uneasy; Cromwell causes people to be ill at ease. As Cranmer finds his feet, Cromwell forces others to bow at his.
These decisions not only cause Pope Paul's papal hat to start spinning on his head, they also draw up the battle lines within Henry's court. Even with Catherine and Mary exiled, Anne Boleyn's approval rating makes George Bush's look positively golden. She has a number of set-to's with Cromwell, the facilitator of Henry's ruthless reforms, gets Henry's wilding buddy Charles of Suffolk (who implied she was less than pure) temporarily booted from court, and chides Henry for his indiscreet affairs. She also fears that her lady-in-waiting, Anne Seymour, is waiting to become queen. But as long as Anne has the capacity to bear Henry a son, the King is willing to overlook the whispers in his court that the Queen is less than chaste...
It's Anne's dwindling inner circle that precipitates her downfall - her greedy, power hungry father, Thomas (another Thomas!); her brother George, who has the innocent face of a babe, the sexual perversions of Oscar Wilde, and the temperament of Jack the Ripper; her fiddle flailing friend Mark Smeaton, brother's lover; and her busty, bubble-brained cousin Madge. Lining up against the Boleyn's are Sir Charles, a patient, but vengeful Cromwell, The Pope, the King of France, Mary, and Henry's Groom William Brereton, who's already taken a pock shot at Anne and missed. (If only Lee Harvey Oswald had his aim!)
But Anne is pregnant with Henry's son, so he'll still forgive her anything. Then she miscarries. Is that the bell in the Tower of London calling?
The series utilizes the vast landscape of Ireland and its chilly castles. The costumes, customs and dialogue will send you back to the 16th Century. The episodes are like Lay's Potato Chips -- if you watch one, you'll have to watch another. I know. I sat up until 2 a.m for three solid nights devouring three episodes at a clip! Even if you've figured out what's going to happen you'll still be bolted to the TV. The storyline takes a few liberties with history as we know it (such as Henry being the same age as Anne when he was actually twice her age, and Brereton painting a bully's eye on Anne).But as you know, fiction is often more entertaining than the truth.
In an attempt to attract a young audience, "The Tudors" overflows with young actors who look like they belong on a runway rather than running away from lances and arrows. I understand that actors are often at the mercy of their scripts, but Jonathan Rhys Meyers is a very one-note Henry VIII. He pops his eyes, snorts, muscles dudes twice his size into walls, and unzips whenever he sees a lady of the court scurry by. He's short-tempered and in a constant state of agitation - hey, it's supposed to be good to be the King! He's hardly the enlightened despot history has made Henry out to be. In short, he's a bodice ripping Tony Soprano, a thug. When he's not shouting or shoving, he looks distressed, as if he's sucking on a lemon in order to ward off scurvy. There's nothing to like about him, and that makes seeing Meyers in virtually every scene tough. Even when he's called upon to finally show his sympathetic side as he beats himself up over whether to send his friend Sir Thomas More to the chop shop, Meyers can't scare up enough tears or emotion to make his agony convincing. His Henry is disconnected, diabolical and despicable. If that's what was intended, bravo. In 1972, Keith Michell starred as Henry VIII in the BBC's excellent mini-series "The Henry VIII and His Six Wives," which also featured perpetual bad guy Donald Pleasance as Cromwell, randy Charlotte Rampling as Anne and Paul McCartney's ex-girlfriend Jane Asher (sister of Peter Asher of Peter and Gordon). I'll take Keith Michell's more rounded portrayal of King Henry over Meyers. Meyers' biggest role before playing the King of England? Playing Elvis Presley. Thank yew very much, but no thanks.
At least Henry is feared and respected by the other characters. Anne Boleyn is reviled by most everyone, which makes Natalie Dormer's task of rising above her villainy and turning in a credible performance that much harder. But she succeeds in capturing Anne's fiestyness and ambition. She's at her best obsessing about Mary becoming Queen ("She is my death and I am hers.") or teetering between sanity and hysteria when she realizes her world is crumbling, lashing out at Henry and Cromwell and finally standing up to her status hungry dad. Dormer is no door mouse in a demanding role.
But it's the supporting actors who are worth a king's ransom...
Although there's no Duke of Earl or Duke of Ellington, there is a Duke of Suffolk, played with forthright gentlemanly elegance by GQ handsome Henry Cavill, who deserves his third billing. Sir Charles is the series equivalent of Errol Flynn, dashing, always on the side of the righteous, and an expert swordsman unafraid to stand in front of his men as he leads them into battle. Apparently the Duke was a bit of rogue during the series first season, bouncing through wheat fields, haystacks and bedrooms with his best buddy, King Henry. Now he has a 17 year-old wife and a young son and has left his days of corset collecting behind him. He's the show's noble moral center, a quiet supporter of Catherine of Aragon, which makes him Anne's natural enemy. She campaigns for his banishment and whines to the King, "He hates me." "But he loves me," Henry replies. Even tyrant has to have a friend, and Charles is loyal to Henry. Charles is one of the show's true heroes and Cavill brings his sense of honor and duty to life.
If it's good to be the King, then it's great to be the Pope. Peter O'Toole plays Pope Paul III with the élan of a cagy, toothless, but still dangerous lion. His dialogue issues from his mouth with the perfect diction of a poet, and whenever he speaks there's always a mischievous glint in his hollow eyes and his sallow skin takes on a lively glow. He acts circles around the other players, and why not? He's Peter O'Toole for chrissakes, and his Pope Paul stirs up memories of his portrayals of the honorable Lawrence of Arabia, heroic Lord Jim, stubborn King Henry II and suave Alan Swan. The list of impressive roles he's played is longer than all the other actors roles put together, and all that experience is right there for you to enjoy on the screen. He loves playing an omnipotent fop, and you'll love watching him steal the show.
Jeremy Northam pays homage to the martyred Thomas More with a measured, pious performance. Hard to believe Sir Thomas could remain so steadfast in his resistance to swear to the oath of allegiance, though. After all, his stubbornness cost his family their lands, as well as his head. As his wife suggests, all he has to do is say he'll take the oath, he doesn't have to mean it. But puffy-eyed Northam does an admirable job hammering home More's rigid, regimented religious lifestyle, and turns him into a sympathetic character done in by his own blind faith.
Pip pip and cheers to Maria Doyle Kennedy. She's so convincing in conveying Catherine's piety that she'll make you forget in real life she's the same flakey singer who recorded a song called "F***kability." Your heart will go out to Catherine, who never wavers in her belief that she's the true Queen of England, and she remains Henry's loyal supporter and wife, despite being treated like a leper with the plague. My only complaint with Maria's performance is that she's so good at masking her Irish brogue with a Spanish accent that when she's at her most virtuous or in failing health (which requires her to whisper), she's occasionally as indecipherable as a sloshed Fernando Lamas. But her regal performance will certainly inspire you to turn back your hourglass and pick up Season One of the series, when she was more of a featured player.
James Frain's take on the cold blooded Cromwell is a study in low-boiled subtlety and stealth - the exact opposite of the blustery, bullish Rhys Meyers. You'd don't want to try and out-scheme the Chancellor with the Moe Howard haircut. Hans Matheson is equally fabulous as the callow, cowardly and malleable Cranmer who tries to stamp out corruption through corruption. His two scenes with his strong-willed German wife are droll and offer an amusing respite between Henry's bouts of bullying. Cranmer's wife is an illegal alien who's forced by law remain incognito. She travels from Germany to England in a box (yeah, pulled by an ox), and when Cromwell invites the Cramner's to dinner, she's forced to travel in the same box to get there. Whoa, 16th century Fed-X! When she begins to give a dissenting opinion on how to cripple the Roman Church and her husband begs her to be quiet, she demands to be heard, saying she's tired of being shut up (metaphorically and physically) in a box. The look on Cromwell's face says he approves whole-heartedly of her suggestion. "Good," she says, "now I'll get back in my box."
James Gilbert as the King's groom, Brereton, bears a striking resemblance to Jeremy Irons. He also resembles Henry Cavill, which led to some confusion figuring out who was who in the early going. Brereton is a bit like Spy vs. Spy or an inept Inspector Clousseau; he's determined to off Anne Boleyn, but muffs his best shot at killing her; then stands idle, spitting venomous lies and dreaming of assassinating her. Gilbert is a regal actor who's character should have been fleshed out more. The same can't be said for Jaime Thomas King, who plays playwright/poet Thomas Wyatt. He's an outwardly happy go-lucky lothario who's actually a sad sack who can't do much right - When was the last time the woman you loved hung herself? And when Anne Boleyn is accused of infidelity, he says in her defense that he's the only person who actually slept with her - and no one cares or believes him. His character should have been sent to the gallows before his second appearance. The same can be said for Nick Dunning, who plays the power-starved Thomas Boleyn. I can't exactly put my finger on what's wrong with Nick except to say he seems a bit too coarse for the part.
As for Anita Briem, who plays Jane Seymour (no, not Dr. Quinn the Medicine Woman, Henry's third wife) -- I can't wait to see more of Jane Seymour.
A Kingdom Of Extras
Showtime has come up with a brilliant method of self-promotion by including complete premier episodes of "Dexter" (Season Three), "Californication" (Season Two), "This American Life" (Season Two) and the first two episodes of the new series "United States of Tara."
If that wasn't enough, there are several other royal featurettes: "The Tower of London," and "Descendants of Henry," photo galleries (it's interesting to see the Duke of York smoking a Kent). and informative bios. The bios are more enlightening than the usual one of two paragraphs you find in standard issue DVDs; some go on for several pages. You'll pick up tasty tidbits, such as Maria Kennedy Doyle's CV as a recording artist - I for one was surprised to learn she was in "The Commitments" and has recorded three solo albums.
Natalie Dormer and Tom Stammers, the Tudor's historian, tour the Tower of London and talk about its connection to Anne Boleyn's life. Boleyn received her coronation at the Tower of London; three years later, she was imprisoned in the same room as she awaited her execution. Stammers also discusses the journals of Sir William Kingston, who oversaw the operations at the Tower. Kingston wrote extensively about Anne Boleyn and his opinions of her are reflected in the script.
"Descendants of Henry" tracks down some of the modern day descendants of Henry VIII, some of whom are unaware of their royal lineage. Amusing snippets from the series are interspersed with the interviews.
"Californication" is the story of a sex addict - starring a sex addict - David Duchovny. The former "X-Files" cult king stars as Hank Moody, a writer who tries to juggle his fractured relationship with his ex-girlfriend, the drug-drenched California lifestyle and his insatiable sexual appetite. It's lewd, crude, racy and not recommended for Republicans:
Doctor (giving Hank a vasectomy): Wanna see the section of the vas deferens I cut out?
Hank: Vas definitely not.
Pope Paul may not approve, but you will if you like ribald humor. What was more shocking for me was coming across two child actors who have grown definitely grown up. Madeline Zima, who played the neurotic Grace Sheffield on "The Nanny" plays Mia, a 16-year-old party girl deflowered by Hank who gets her revenge by stealing his manuscript, putting her name on it and getting a big payday. (For what it's worth, Zima is a youthful twenty-three, so sicking the Special Victim Unit's after Duchony won't help.) Zima will make you go zooma.
The other scene stealing child actor is Pamela Adlon. You might remember her as Pamela Segal (no relation to George). Standing a massive five feet tall, she was often cast as tomboys, biker chicks, or the spunky best friend on shows like "Night Court" and "The Facts of Life." As she got older, Pam got into voice overs and has been portraying Bobby on "King of the Hill" for the past 13 years. The sandy-voice actress plays
Marcy Ruckle, a coke-huffing dynamo who's producing X-rated features starring her husband, Charlie. (Pudgy, chrome-domed Evan Handler, who's credits include playing Larry Fine of the Three Stooges, plays Charlie. We're not talking John Holmes here. Sherlock or Larry perhaps, but not sex symbol material.)
"This American Life" is a visual magazine that covers a different theme each week. The two segments featured on the DVD focus on "escape." The first segment follows a bunch of inner city children who've taken up horseback riding. As one kid puts it, riding a horse is "ghettofabulous." One of the most striking visuals is a group of riders crossing an overpass above a congested highway, but the best part is seeing the freedom horseback riding affords the kids.
The second segment introduces the audience to Mike, a 27 year-old victim of SMA (spinal muscular atrophy) who's disabilities require 24-7 medical care. Bed-bound, speechless Mike's been under his mother's constant care virtually all of his life, and it's reached the stage where their relationship and nerves are strained. Mike wants more independence, Mom needs more vacation. Mike may have a virtually useless body, but his mind remains sharp, thanks to his ability to tap out messages on a computer keyboard (sentences can take up to three minutes to type), and the code of facial expressions he's developed. Exercising his independence, Mike also placed an ad on Craig's list for an assistant attendant to spell his Mom. One of his volunteers became his girlfriend, a story that's astounding on its own, but watching Mike conquer the simplest of tasks we take for granted as he tries to spread his wings is inspirational.
One of Showtime's newest series, "United States of Tara" stars Toni Collete as woman with multiple personalities. Having dated a young lady who was Marilyn Monroe one moment and Marilyn Manson the next, I can tell you Collete's performance is a lot funnier.
As for those of you who haven't discovered "Dexter" a show about a serial killer who helps cops put the cuffs on other killers, what chu waitin' for? The third season opener, included here, is a killer.
"The Tudors" is a crown jewel... And you don't have to swear an oath of allegiance in order to watch it.