LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - Henry VIII, the 16th century British monarch best known for beheading wives and breaking with the Pope, gets an extreme makeover in “The Tudors,” a lavish 10-part drama five years in the making.
The series, a feast for the eyes, boasts stellar performances and a historically authentic aura but only occasional flashes of the kind of action and suspense you might expect from such a period piece.
It was written entirely by Michael Hirst, who walks a line between a proper historical drama and a less solemn tale of family spats and feuds. Although there is not an episode in which Henry doesn’t contemplate going to war against some power or other, no battles occur and no swords, catapults or cannons were harmed in the making of this production.
Instead, the focus is squarely on Henry, played with bravado and an above-average intellect by Jonathan Rhys Meyers. This is the same actor who won a Golden Globe and an Emmy nomination for his portrayal of the young rock star in CBS’ “Elvis” miniseries. His virtuoso performances in both roles indicate the breadth of his enormous talent.
Although Elvis and Henry were both larger-than-life figures, the King of England is in some ways more relatable than the King of Rock. Henry assumed power at age 18, inheriting from his brother both the throne and a slightly used queen, Catherine of Aragon (Maria Doyle Kennedy). Henry was schooled by philosopher Thomas More but now mostly surrounds himself with an entourage of frat boy friends. In the first several episodes, he comes to grips with both the duties of his rank and his appetite for physical activity.
More interesting than his dalliances and jousting is Henry’s relationship with the Catholic Church. His most trusted adviser and administrator is Cardinal Wolsey (a nuanced performance by Sam Neill), himself a complicated figure with papal ambition and divided loyalty to both Henry and the church. The conflict comes to the fore when Henry seeks an annulment from his marriage to Catherine so that he can marry sly temptress Anne Boleyn (Natalie Dormer), who insists she won’t be anyone’s mistress, not even the king’s.
There is intrigue inside and outside the palace, with national alliances being formed and dissolved and treaties being signed and broken. The consequences for the world are large, and the series acknowledges them, but the real business here is the passions of Henry. As for the tumult of conquest and intrigue in the rest of the world, it is mainly represented in tedious scenes of formal signing ceremonies and occasional dialogue between Henry, Cardinal Wolsey and a variety of ambassadors with varying levels of diplomatic skills. Breast-beating notwithstanding, Henry is a monarch who’d rather make love than war.
The production design of Tom Conroy, the cinematic eye of Ousama Rawi and the costume design of Joan Bergin make this a convincing re-creation of an ancient age. Quick cuts of action lend to the excitement. Mostly, though, this is a solid and historically grounded drama that is dependably entertaining with performances often more riveting than the stories from which they arise.
King Henry VIII: Jonathan Rhys Meyers
Cardinal Wolsey: Sam Neill
Sir Thomas More: Jeremy Northam
Princess Margaret: Gabrielle Anwar
Knivert: Callum Blue
Brandon: Henry Cavill
Norfolk: Henry Czerny
Anne Boleyn: Natalie Dormer
Queen Catherine of Aragon: Maria Doyle Kennedy
Thomas Boleyn: Nick Dunning
Mary Boleyn: Perdita Weeks
Executive producers: Benjamin Silverman, Teri Weinberg, Sheila Hockin, Eric Fellner, Tim Bevan, Morgan O’Sullivan, Michael Hirst, Charles McDougall, Steve Shill; Producers: James Flynn, Gary Howsam; Creator-teleplay: Michael Hirst; Directors: Charles McDougall, Steve Shill; Director of photography: Ousama Rawi; Production designer: Tom Conroy; Editor: Wendy Hallam Martin; Music: Trevor Morris; Costume designer: Joan Bergin; Set decorator: Eliza Solesbury; Casting: Nuala Moiselle, Frank Moiselle.