On Tudor Costume Dramas

Late last week I was laid low by the flu, a ferocious illness that took my internal gyroscopes and hid them somewhere. I spent the two solid days in bed, and as such I decided I would watch some DVDs that I’d left neglected — The Tudors, the Showtime series based on Henry VIII’s early reign; and Elizabeth: The Golden Age, the sequel to Elizabeth, starring Cate Blanchett.

Both productions — The Tudors and Elizabeth: The Golden Age — were written by Michael Hirst, by the way.

I have some interest in the period. I’ve long considered myself, at the very least, an amateur historian of medieval and early modern English history. From the Norman Conquest to the battle of Waterloo, there’s something about the era that just… appeals to me.

Let’s begin with The Tudors.

I don’t consider myself any sort of expert on the Tudor period, but I can say this — there’s not a hell of a lot of history in The Tudors. Ten years of history were crammed down into about a three-year period. Characters’ ages, relationships, and motivations varied widely from the historical record. Henry Fitzroy, for instance, lived into his teenage years and didn’t die at about the age of two, as per The Tudors.

However, I didn’t really care.

The performances were almost universally solid. Jonathan Rhys Meyers’ Henry VIII turned on an emotional dime. Sam Niell’s Cardinal Wolsey was not a man you’d want to trifle with. And I was very taken with Jeremy Northam’s Sir Thomas More.

There were plots and counterplots that would confuse even a Romulan. Opportunists were around every corner.

The Tudors had a lavish look to it, though my understanding was that it was done fairly cheaply. Some of the CGI, like the recreation of London, circa 1525. isn’t entirely convincing. Yet, in general I would say that the Irish shooting locations were well taken advantage of; the series really felt like a different place.

My understanding is that the second season debuts on Showtime around mid-April. I bought the first season as a blind buy at Wal-Mart for twenty dollars, and it was money well spent. No, it’s not historically accurate, but the performances are strong and the writing will keep you guessing.

Elizabeth: The Golden Age is the sequel to Elizabeth, the film about the early years of Queen Elizabeth I’s reign. The Golden Age picks up about twenty-five years later. Spain plots to bring down Elizabeth, and they’re building an Armada. Meanwhile, a plot to assassinate Elizabeth and put her cousin, Mary Queen of Scots, on the throne is moving forward. And into the middle of this, a privateer named Walter Raleigh shows up at Elizabeth’s court one day, capturing the Queen’s fancy — and the eye of one of Elizabeth’s Ladies in Waiting.

Elizabeth: The Golden Age looks fantastic. Cate Blanchett’s performance as Elizabeth — who must balance her private person with her public persona as the State — is strong.

However, the film itself is a narrative muddle. Worse, it’s often boring.

Elizabeth had a lot going on. From Bloody Mary’s death to Elizabeth’s insecurity on her own throne to attempts on her life and her own realization that she had to put the needs of the nation ahead of her needs as a woman, Elizabeth felt both intimate and involving.

Elizabeth: The Golden Age isn’t sure what sort of film it wants to be. The direction is never lacking, but the story on the screen feels like scenes from a larger drama lacking in their context. The plot doesn’t develop so much as it happens, and the marriage of the plotlines — Philip of Spain’s Armada, the assassins, Raleigh — never feels natural. Elizabeth was driven by Elizabeth’s need to secure herself on the throne. In Elizabeth: The Golden Age she’s already secure — and beloved — on her throne. The threats to her reign in 1585-1588 — while historically accurate — aren’t as narratively compelling. As such, the film doesn’t quite connect.

As I mentioned above, Blanchett’s performance was strong, though. There are several scenes that show how much of a creation the public persona of Queen Elizabeth was; in her private moments, Elizabeth is frail and emaciated, while her public image is anything but. And her speech to rally her defenders on the beaches was impressive and effective.

Strangely, I found Clive Owen weak as Walter Raleigh. I found very little heat in the character. He’s a charming rogue and little more than that. Honestly, I found myself wishing for Simon Jones’ Walter Raleigh to breeze onto the stage and knock this usurper Raleigh aside.

Elizabeth: The Golden Age, ultimately, looks lavish but comes away with a bit of a hollow feeling. It has fantastic set design and interesting direction, but there’s not a lot beneath the surface. As the middle film in the Elizabeth trilogy — plans are that in a decade a film about Elizabeth’s final years will be produced by the same team behind Elizabeth and Elizabeth: The Golden Age — it really feels like a placeholder film rather than a film worth watching on its own merits.

On the heels of these, another Tudor costume drama hits theaters this weekend — The Other Boleyn Girl, based on the novel by Philippa Gregory. The film covers similar ground to The Tudors — Henry VIII’s taking up with Anne Boleyn. I’m vaguely interested in this film, though whether I actually go to see it this weekend is an open question.

In sum, I can recommend The Tudors, though if you have any passing knowledge of the actual events of the period, it’s best to check those thoughts at the door. Elizabeth: The Golden Age looks fantastic, but it’s ultimately less than engaging.

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