Culture & Conversation

Hooked On Henry

Don’t expect to see me anywhere but in front of the TV Wednesday nights at 9. Michael Hirst’s brilliant historical romp The Tudors remains the hottest spot on the box and infinitely better than most of what the wide screen has to offer.

The acting, sets, costumes and music are sumptuous, but the series’ real strength lies in the writing, by times Shakespearean yet never less than totally filmic. Combining pageantry and psychology, this retelling of King Henry VIII’s eventful life is a masterful fusion of character and circumstance. Rich in irony, because we all know how it ends, the series is nevertheless full of surprises.

Take last week. Henry’s beloved Jane has died in childbirth. He’s devastated, weeps on her waxen corpse and falls into despair, although of course he’d been sleeping with her ladies in waiting whenever it pleased him. Still, Jane produced a son, the central quest of his life with women. Her death convinces him happiness will not endure. Remember, he’s Catholic at heart, wracked by guilt but not to the point of doing penance or changing his ways.

The religious subplot is excellent. While locked away in mourning, Henry masterminds six new commandments and browbeats his clerical committee into broadcasting them throughout the kingdom. As Thomas Cromwell points out, he’s more Catholic than the Pope. His only quarrel is with the Pope’s claim to authority. Better it be the King of England.

Jonathan Rhys Meyers remains a lean, mean Henry, though in his public scenes he wears a huge coat with football player shoulder pads, so the gap between the Henry we see and the burly one of his portraits seems less jarring than it might. Whereas the cheap route would have been to age him in the makeup shop, the creators have instead chosen to focus on his inner life. Henry seems to age and wither before our eyes, dragged down not by physical decay but by crumbling confidence and souring passion.

As he hunts for a fourth wife and is forced to watch many good candidates flee – one woman ran off with his cousin in Scotland – we see him losing his grip on manliness even as his political power seem externally, at least, to be solid.

Some critics have blamed the series creator, Hirst, for historical inaccuracies. If he’s guilty, it’s a price worth paying. Should a weary citizen need reminding that authority and power have always been a dubious pact for those of us on the ground, tune into The Tudors. The brazen self-interest behind divine right to rule will chill your blood.

Next week’s episode looks promising. Anne of Cloves, his last choice for a fourth wife, finally reveals her face.

The Tudors is broadcast on CBC Wednesdays at 9 pm in Montreal.

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