The Tudors

Season one on DVD. Season two debuts Sunday, March 30, on Showtime (not that I get Showtime, but for the record, there it is).

I always feel vaguely uneasy about historical drama. I feel guilty about not feeling guilty for the way storytellers tweak and compress and misrepresent the substance of real peoples’ lives for the sake of the tale. It seems unfair, for example, that we think of Richard III as a monstrous king when he almost certainly had nothing to do with the deaths of his royal nephews, yet I’d be loath to give up Shakespeare’s deliciously venomous antihero for the sake of rigid historical accuracy. Besides, the story behind the story—how and why Richard became so maligned even before the Bard got involved—is intriguing in its own right. Shifts and reinterpretations are half the fun of history, and dramatic interpretations are particularly entertaining. I just can’t get indignant the way my pedantic side feels I ought.

All this is to say that I know enough about the reign of Henry VIII to recognize that The Tudors is taking liberties. Henry and Katherine of Aragon were not more than a decade apart in age. Cardinal Wolsey did not commit suicide. And Henry’s younger sister was Mary, not Margaret, and she married the king of France, not the king of Portugal, and she certainly didn’t murder him.

But it’s liberties like those that help heighten the drama. The considerable age gap between Henry and Katherine emphasizes how Henry was motivated to divorce her in part because he wanted a younger, potentially more fertile wife to bear his children. Wolsey’s suicide emphasizes just how sudden and extreme the cardinal’s fall from favor was, providing a satisfying climax to one of the season’s principal arcs. And the misrepresentation of Henry’s sister simplifies the narrative (the story hardly needs another Mary, and the intrigues with France are complicated enough as is) and supplies a surprisingly compelling subplot about just how bad a princess’s lot in life was (a pet theme of mine, I admit). In other words, the writers often use falsity to illuminate truth, and to do so with flair.

Of course, I don’t want to overstate the case here. The Tudors is fun, even affecting at points, but it’s certainly not in the same league as Shakespeare. It’s a soap, albeit an unusually lush one, given to melodramatics and overripe dialogue and gratuitous nudity. That said, I have a weakness for melodramatics and overripe dialogue (gratuitous nudity isn’t so bad either), so I forgive the show its sins and delight in the morsels of substance beneath the froth.

The first season of The Tudors follows the rise of Anne Boleyn and the fall of Cardinal Wolsey in the court of Henry VIII, who is not yet the rotund, middle-aged man of Holbein portraits but a young, vigorous monarch eager to prove himself. Creator Michael Hirst underlines Henry’s youth by casting weaselly pretty boy Jonathan Rhys Meyers as the king, but in many respects Henry is the least interesting character on screen. Hirst’s Henry is not so much an actor as one acted upon, an unruly game piece in the power struggles among his advisers, their rivals, and various foreign dignitaries.

Frankly, most of the actors playing these scheming men and women outshine Meyers. Maria Doyle Kennedy is sympathetic and self-possessed as the devout Queen Katherine, who does everything she can to preserve her marriage. James Frain embodies shrewd patience as royal counselor Thomas Cromwell, and Henry Cavill persuasively plays Henry’s friend Charles Brandon as an impetuous frat boy in over his head. The best roles, however, go to Jeremy Northam and Sam Neill, who play Thomas More and Cardinal Wolsey.

Over the course of the first season, Hirst and his actors complicate our initial impressions of these very different men. More is a principled idealist, Wolsey a corrupt schemer, so at first blush, More is the angel on Henry’s shoulder and Wolsey the devil. But The Tudors isn’t content with those easy oversimplifications. Gradually it reveals that More is not just an idealist but a Catholic zealot. Once given power, he launches a remorseless crackdown on Protestantism, going so far as to burn six Lutherans at the stake (historical fact, for the record). As Henry’s power-hungry Lord Chancellor, Wolsey undoubtedly has blood on his hands, too, but his self-awareness makes him somewhat sympathetic. Unlike More, he recognizes his own worldliness, and that self-awareness—the knowledge of what he has sacrificed for power—makes his precipitous fall a poignant one. Like Shakespeare (ha!), Hirst paraphrases Wolsey’s famous statement of regret—“Had I but served God as diligently as I have served the King, He would have not given me over in my gray hairs”—and Neill delivers the line beautifully, with wry sorrow that reverberates with contemporary relevance.

The Boleyns don’t come across as nearly so tragic, though the shadow of their eventual fate hangs over the entire show. Even after ten episodes, I’m not sure whether I buy the actors’ performances. Nick Dunning plays Anne’s father, Thomas, as something of a lightweight, always seeming a bit dimmer than his allies, and Natalie Dormer’s Anne is an enigma. It’s never clear how willing and conscious a participant she is in the manipulation of the king, nor is it clear what her true feelings are. She is an Icarus figure, soaring too high on wings that will not survive the heat, but is she flying on her own, or has she been hurled there by her ambitious family? The only thing Dormer conveys unequivocally is Anne’s vanity, her love of the jewels Henry bestows upon her and the rapt attention from the court, and without something more, Anne’s inevitable downfall will be pitiful but not tragic.

But there’s time for that. The climax of the second season surely will not be Anne’s fall from grace but Thomas More’s (I would guess Anne gets hers in season three, maybe even season four), and I look forward to Netflixing the DVDs months from now to watch Northam portray the Man for All Seasons arc from a different angle. (The other reason to be annoyed that our cable package doesn’t include Showtime: Peter O’Toole joins the cast as the Pope.) Early on, The Tudors gets in a cheap laugh with Henry crossly telling More, “You’re not a saint, you know” (contemporary Catholics, of course, would beg to differ), but after that, the show does an admirable job of portraying More as both saint and sinner, scholar and book-burner, pacifist and inquisitor. I expect More’s fate on The Tudors will look quite different from his demise in the adulatory 1960s play—and that, in the end, is why I enjoy historical drama. The costumes and castles and royal intrigues are fun, of course, but it’s the chance to view the past from different standpoints that makes the familiar stories worth returning to again and again.