Saturday, July 31, 2010

Henry VIII, a Review

So much promise, so much wrong.

Back in 2005, when the Famille Evil went to England for the first time, one of the first things we did (after overcoming jet lag) was tour the Tower of London.

Yeah, so do everybody. I know. Shut up.

One of the first things the Yeoman Warder said on the tour was that "Henry VIII was the most despotic and tyrannical of English kings." And I was startled, because that was not the image that I had of the man.

Sure, he'd married a bunch of times, and cut off a head or two, but---Tudor England! The English Renaissance! The flowering of music and poetry and Protestantism! Finally the end of civil war, and a king whose first job was not to don armor and lead troops, but to write music and woo women and travel from palace to palace in a peaceful land, right?

Well, partially true, as all things are, but also Henry had a lot more people beheaded than I had realized, and the worst of it was how many of them were the people who had served him closely for years. A man who observed the letter of the legal process but bullied it to get his way. A man who would be interesting to see played by Ray Winstone.

And to be sure, we get a thug of a king. A man whose outsized desires and will simply flatten anyone who gets in his way. There is some charm, and in the early years he's rather attractive and you can see his charisma. He's terribly short of elegance or subtlety, things that the real Henry VIII is said to have had, but you can certainly find him appealing.

Coupled with Helena Bonham Carter, who acts the hell out of the role of Anne Boleyn, and you can see the greatness and the disaster of that marriage. Bonham Carter's Boleyn is fiery, whip smart, sensual and challenging. Why wouldn't a competitor like Henry insist on conquering her?

It is here, however, that the series takes its fatal wrong turn: Henry decides to get rid of Anne when she doesn't give him a son--but he starts skulking around outside the chamber doors to listen to the "trial" and to hear the verdict that was entirely pre-determined. And then. . .he cries. He cries! He actually stands in an empty hallway, half in shadows behind a column (as if THAT was ever going to happen--the man was positively surrounded by people at all times) and cries!

Oh boo bloody hoo, you jerk! YOU'RE the one who made the decision to throw her to the wolves. If you loved her so damn much, then you didn't have to do that. Instead, it becomes this pathetic pity party he throws for himself--the woman he loved is going to die and he did it and he didn't have to but blah blah blah whineycakes. Shut up.

It doesn't make the character complex, or more likeable, or anything, actually. It just makes him self-pitying and delusional. The rest of the series continues to fall down the melodramatic rabbit hole, to the point of being unwatchable. A real low point is his discovery that his fifth wife, Katherine Howard, is unfaithful. His advisor, Thomas Cranmer, can't bring himself to actually tell the king to his face, so he leaves a note on the prie dieu for Henry to find while at prayer. (He remains skulking behind a column to watch that Henry actually reads the note--a nasty reminder of the earlier scene.) Ah, but Henry does him one better--he reads the note, crumples it up in his fist and raises his hand to the sky while bellowing "NOOOOOOOOOO!!!!"

Ah, melodramatic posturing. It cracks me up every time.

Because of course it's silly. It's ridiculously silly. It's like bad opera, with him on his knees, his fist raised to heaven, shouting his denial to an unhearing god. . .except not that believable. At this point, my sympathies are all with Katherine Howard, played by Emily Blunt who is far too intelligent and far too good an actress to be saddled with this terrible role.

Of course there is no way to cram the entirely of Henry's reign into a mere four hours of screen time, and the focus on the six wives is a handy way to structure his life. I'm not even going to object to the various historical errors. What I object to is the cheap and cliched picture of the man that is presented here. The series opens with Henry at his father's deathbed, being told the most important thing for him to do as a king is to have a son. That vow to his dying father is then the presented as the most important thing for him to do, which has to be ridiculous--he made a vow to his father, but what about all the vows (coronation vow, marriage vows, etc.) he makes to God? What about his obligation to his own soul? Those are issues that would have been important to Henry, and which were thrown into question in his quest for a divorce from his first wife, his allegation that Anne Boleyn was a witch, and on and on.

But no--for the purposes of this mini-series, Henry has only one vow he needs to fulfill, and all the attendant chaos and death that attends his single-minded quest to have a son is just to be seen as hardships he has to face. It's too bad Anne Boleyn was beheaded, but the real sadness is that her death was uncomfortable for Henry, who had no choice, because he had to fulfill his promise to his dad.

Not buying it. Not liking it. Not recommending it.

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