Henry? Perhaps 1/8th
“The Tudors,” which comes bearing down Sunday on Showtime, gives us the court of Henry VIII filtered through the spirit and aesthetics of 21st century premium cable television. Even were one unaware that it was exactly the pitch originally made to screenwriter Michael Hirst (of the Cate Blanchett big-screen “Elizabeth”), the conceptual connection to “The Sopranos” is easy to work out. “Rome” and “Deadwood” will also forgivably spring to mind.
The 10-episode series is also supposed to be a new sort of portrait of the Fat Old King as a Buff Young Man, as played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers (“Bend It Like Beckham,” “Velvet Goldmine”). (“Rock star of his day,” and so on.) But if your big idea is that Henry VIII was an athletic, highly sexed stud muffin before he turned into the gluttonous caricature of popular imagination, that will not take you very far in and of itself -- if television teaches us anything, it’s that rich, good-looking young people can actually be extraordinarily tiresome. And though it starts out with a fair bit of energy, in spite of regular paroxysms of royal lust and pique, it becomes less engaging as it goes on and grows finally rather dull.
Although not quite true to the historical timeline or the real relative ages of its characters, skewing the king a little young, the series at least does not try to bite off more Henry than it can chew. (No fat suit or prosthetic wrinkles for Rhys Meyers, thankfully.) Indeed, it concerns only the first two of the famous Six Wives. When we meet him, the king has become frustrated by his lack of a male heir, which he at times ascribes to his having broken the biblical injunction against uncovering the nakedness of thy brother’s wife, married as he is to his former sister-in-law. (“The Tudor dynasty gone! ... And it’s my fault!”) And so he sets about trying to trade in devoted old Katherine (Maria Doyle Kennedy) for new-model Anne Boleyn (Natalie Dormer), who, mindful of another well-known injunction -- about not buying the cow when you can get the milk for free -- keeps him at strategic arm’s length.
There are other liberties taken, most outrageously with Henry’s sister Margaret (Gabrielle Anwar), who is not only conflated with his sister Mary but married off to a deformed old Portuguese king as neither sister ever was in life; I’ll not spoil the astonishing denouement of that episode.
But other Real People of History will turn over in their graves come Sunday, perhaps none more rapidly than the great liturgical composer Thomas Tallis (Joe Van Moyland), reimagined as a sort of sensitive pop star beset by 16th century groupies: “Thomas, Thomas Tallis? We just want to say we love your music. We share a room -- do you want to come back with us?” (Later he is seduced into an ahistorical gay liaison by one of Henry’s pals, who comes on to him, saying, “You have... such a talent.”) Shakespeare took similar liberties, of course; there is nothing inherently wrong with it. If you’re Shakespeare.
How much accuracy does a historical drama owe its audience anyway? I’d say it all depends on what it gives them in return -- if they’re sufficiently engaged, frightened, made to laugh, you can be wrong about everything. And too much concern with getting it right is, besides economically stressful to any TV series, likely to cloud a production in scholarly must and dust and distract from the more important tasks of building character and developing ideas. In the best historical films, which are not necessarily the best-looking, the spirit of the times is perceptibly present without forever announcing itself; it informs the speeches and actions without taking them over, it lives in the actors’ bodies.
That is not what happens here. “The Tudors” works the edges without building up the middle -- it’s an empty sandwich. On the one hand its speeches are studded with factoids and philosophy, and on the other its players carry on as if they had wandered out of an episode of “Entourage,” but it never offers anything like a complete character or carries through an idea; none of the scenes lasts long enough to get a good dialectic going.
For all the heavy breathing, it’s dramatically dead, so that even while it offers “sympathetic” views of sometimes maligned historical figures, one never feels involved with them or their fates. Jeremy Northam (“Gosford Park”) is a likable Thomas More and Sam Neill (“Jurassic Park”) a not wholly unlikable Cardinal Wolsey; Kennedy is a dignified Katherine and Dormer a fetching Anne. But none really suggests a life beyond the scene he or she happens to be playing. As to the king himself, Rhys Meyers brings to the part a superhero torso and the curling lip that served him well as Elvis Presley in a TV movie a couple of years back, but gives overall what might be called an uncomplicated performance, long on quivering intensity and short on humor. He might be playing a serial killer as easily as a king.
But it is pretty to look at, and every 20 minutes or so somebody takes off clothes or has sex. (“My lord,” says one of Henry’s one-night stands, dropping her shift, “how like you this?”) That may be all you ask of your pay-cable subscriptions; if so, this should suit you fine.
When: 10 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children younger than 17)
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