So I binge-watched The Tudors on Netflix, sue me.
The show had some faults, some of them amusing, like the telenovela soap opera opening credits, the conceit that every historic personage was young, virile and looked like fashion models, and the ridiculous attempt to “age” Henry VIII by merely streaking his hair with gray and having him speak in a husky voice. And it simply wouldn’t have done to show Henry VIII’s girth he gained early in life, even as he was wooing his second wife — but then Jonathan Rhys Meyers didn’t look at all like the paintings we have of the monarch.
And, of course, as soap opera, it displayed every motivation as coming from sex and lust, when it was not always the case. But all that was for television, and Showtime had demanded a sexy soap opera based on history, and that’s what they got — Will Durant with lots of breast shots, sweaty bodies and perfectly-lit thighs.
It departed from history in quite a few places, especially some seemingly random diversions, but in other ways was quite pleasantly devoted to it: some bits, especially letters and speeches delivered before beheadings, were taken directly from historical accounts. The portrayal of Henry composing Greensleeves made me laugh — even though that theory has been debunked, it did persist in history for quite some time.
But in some places the show rose to poetry — poetry in visuals as well as in words. I don’t know why, but the portrayal of Ann Boleyn’s downfall, final hours and execution have brutally haunted me. She had just seen her father disown her to save his own skin, but in her final moments, as the sword swung toward her neck, she imagined herself a little girl once again, being swung around in a green lawn by her smiling, loving father who was now gone. I can’t get that episode out of my mind. It haunts me still.
There was also a brief scene in the middle of the 4th season, where the Duke of Suffolk and the Earl of Surrey have a conversation about the ephemeral nature of happiness (video below) — which has stuck in my head too, hitting very close to home. The pleasures of life grow dim and small as we race toward the end, indeed.
All in all, the acting was generally good, with the characters of Cardinal Wolsey, Anne Boleyn and Thomas More elevating the enterprise. The show seemed to stumble a bit once these magnificent characters left the stage as many did in the reign of Henry VIII, but in a way that too captured the reign itself, as it peaked and then began a slide toward its inevitable end.
But in the final analysis the show captured the essence of Henry VIII, a behemoth (in more ways than one) astride English history — probably the loudest, most colorful of the English monarchs.