'The Tudors': Buff Henry VIII Finds Minx Amid the Ermine

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 31, 2007

Henry VIII has usually been portrayed in historical movies as a tubby old glutton given to lechery and treachery. As far as tubbiness goes, it's obvious from the first scenes of "The Tudors," Showtime's new miniseries about the infamous king, that this is a Henry who's been to the gym. There's barely an ounce of blubber on him.

It's something of a revisionist view: Henry as a young man, ascending to the throne while still a teenager and romping about in bedrooms and on playing fields, having his way with a court full of 16th-century foxes. The 10-part epic, full of violence and bared skin, is history as Sidney Sheldon might have written it.

Everyone's after power when they're not after sex, as Henry -- played by the intense Jonathan Rhys Meyers -- sets the pace and the tone for the drama. Like many Showtime productions, this one seems partly inspired by hits from pay-cable front-runner HBO; "Tudors" combines "The Sopranos" and "Rome," its dysfunctional family meeting in a distant time.

Writer Michael Hirst says in production notes that he likes to contemporize history to make it more accessible to modern audiences. In Henry's court, you'll hear a conspirator saying of a political foe, "It's high time we kicked him out" -- which doesn't sound very 1520.

"Tudors" gets right down to business, opening with an assassination in Italy. The film is barely seven minutes old when Henry strips to his undies for a session in the sack with a lovely topless babe. Henry does everything lustfully, whether actual lust is involved or not. He even plays tennis lustfully, and he's so physical a king that he twice participates in jousting matches -- the second time sustaining a nasty bash in the bean.

In Part 6, Henry settles a dispute by flexing his biceps for a bout of arm wrestling; in Part 2, incensed by smirking insults, he challenges the foppish king of France to a full-blown wrestling match. The two had met to sign a Treaty of Universal Peace, but because of the outcome of the match, the treaty goes unsigned and Henry stomps back to England.

Rhys Meyers, a versatile Irish actor (he played Elvis Presley in a CBS miniseries and starred in the films "Match Point" and "Bend It Like Beckham") has a smoldering presence. He makes Henry complex and commanding, passionate in the pursuit of power, fame and sexual conquests.

Among those conquests: beautiful and cunning Anne Boleyn (Natalie Dormer), whom Henry wants to marry, and his mistress Elizabeth Blount (Ruta Gedmintas). That will require divorcing wife Katherine of Aragon (Maria Doyle Kennedy), but Henry has to joust (not literally this time) with the pope for that to happen.

In one of Hirst's little jokes, he has Henry admiring the lovely neck of young Boleyn. Of course he'll have her dainty head chopped off later in life. In his youth, Henry's means are less drastic and his goals fairly simple: a divorce, a new wife, a male heir and, oh yes, immortality.

For the first six hours, Henry is naively compliant to crafty Cardinal Wolsey (Sam Neill), who seems to look upon Henry as a reckless whippersnapper. At times it appears that the veteran Neill looks upon Rhys Meyers's performance that way, too. Maybe it's just good acting.

While Henry's court is filled with sycophants, there are plotting detractors as well, foremost among them the Duke of Buckingham (Steven Waddington), who sneeringly calls Henry "the usurper." The only time we see much of commoners is in Part 5, when tattered and impoverished souls seek charity from Katherine at a church in Lambeth.

Composer Thomas Tallis (Joe Van Moyland) shows up in Part 1 looking like a hippie poet, pops up briefly in subsequent chapters and eventually has a surprising affair with one of Henry's attractive associates. Alas, he never writes "Greensleeves." Henry Cavill cuts a striking figure as Charles Brandon, whom Henry adores -- until Brandon runs off with Princess Margaret (gorgeous Gabrielle Anwar), eventually precipitating the big arm-wrestling match one doubts ever got waged.

The drama is not without humor, as when poor Margaret is torn from Brandon's arms and sent off to Portugal for an arranged marriage to its senile, smelly old potentate. She helps bring the marriage to a quick conclusion by smothering the geezer with a pillow. Then it's back to England and a court full of hunks-in-waiting.

Characters wear cumbersome, elaborate costumes -- costumes that call too much attention to themselves -- in an attempt to evoke the age, but somehow it seems as though Warner Bros. did it better 70 or 80 years ago. It's when the costumes are shed and tossed to the floor that "Tudors" perks up.

Do we ever feel as if we're really there, in Henry's court, half a millennium ago? Perhaps not, but a splendid cast and sumptuous production details make "The Tudors" a rollicking and resplendent show, if never a deeply affecting one.

The Tudors (one hour) premieres tomorrow night at 10 on Showtime.

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