Since the time of Shakespeare, storytellers and filmmakers have taken liberties with the lives and times of the rock stars of the 16th century: The Tudors. Their stories have always had the making of a good teleplay. Certainly the BBC has exploited them many times with anachronistic Masterpiece Theatre productions that put me to sleep.
I’ve seen quite a few of the older films: A Man for All Seasons & Anne of the Thousand Days comes to mind. The latter in particular is about as emotionally intense as a Saturday matinee can get. These older Tudor films have a tendency to be stuffy, stagey, and lacking nuance. Also – why is the lighting always terrible? Like, it was too difficult to shoot by candlelight so they just shot everything in daylight?
That’s probably exactly what happened.
Luckily, in the past 20 years or so filmmakers have finally realized the artistic possibilities in the stories of Henry VIII, his children, and his wives. Lush landscapes, moody lighting, and extravagant dress are the new hallmarks of Tudor films. The Other Boleyn Girl even had green taffeta. Unfortunately there have been some pretty questionable artistic choices. I turned Reign off after about 5 minutes. I found The Tudors boring, and the casting of Jonathan Reyes Meyers as the 6ft tall athlete that was Henry VIII, nonsensical.
As a result the list of TV Shows and films I actually like about this period is very small.
Here is my top three:
3. Lady Jane (Nunn, 1986)
When I see your face again, I want it for all eternity.
Directed by Trevor Nunn, known for not much, Lady Jane recounts the rise and fall of Jane Grey, famous for being queen for 9 days. I thought the tragic story of Lady Jane was pretty terrific when I was 14. In case you’re unfamiliar: As a young teen in1553 Jane Grey was exploited by her parents and a bunch of dukes who declared her queen after the death of Edward IV. They did this for a few reasons: mostly to increase their social status and to avoid the return to Catholicism that the rightful queen, Mary I, had promised.
Basically Mary and her banner men quashed the rebellion fast (think 9 days?), and took the throne. Jane and her cohorts were imprisoned and later beheaded on Tower Hill.
Now, there are no verifiable contemporary portraits of Lady Jane but I’m pretty sure she looked like Helena Bonham Carter, who plays Jane like really smart mouse. Lady Jane is, at its core, a teen romance and it derives most of its emotion from Jane’s relationship with Guildford Dudley, the guy she’s forced to marry. In life, Jane was not super excited about this but, in the film, she comes to love Guildford. They pretty much frolic around until the axe falls but it’s a sweet little film. Even though it retains some of that masterpiece theatre vibe, we are made to truly sympathize with Jane. She’s just a girl forced into an impossible situation.
To that effect allow me to share this limerick I wrote about her for Grade 10 English. My teacher read them allowed in class and called mine “Nice. Historical” which was praise from Caesar considering how tough that guy was. His comments to other students included “Not even close” & “What the hell is this?”.
“There once was a Lady Jane Grey
Who was queen for only 9 days
They chopped off her head
For treason they said
And a torrent of blood gushed away”
This is the Lord’s doing. And it is marvelous in our eyes.
It’s been awhile since I’ve seen this but I seem to recall it took major liberties and was kind of loud. The opening titles are super scary! Inter-titles explain the terrifying story of the Tudor dynasty: people have died, portraits are swirling around under some sort of crazy fire overlay, and then some heathens are graphically burned alive!
This is Mary’s England: paranoid, dank, and ruled by a cruel queen. Mary is ugly and unreasonable, especially next to Elizabeth’s (Cate Blanchett) alabaster beauty. After Mary’s death Elizabeth ascends the throne. She spends most of the film avoiding marriage, feeling fucked up about her dad, and learning how to be a queen in a country torn apart by religious dissent. Her dad wanting a divorce from her mom because Elizabeth wasn’t a boy caused this dissent, by the way.
As seems to be the trend around some of these Tudor film directors, Shekhar Kapur isn’t known for much besides this film and its sequels. I have seen Elizabeth: The Golden Age, and I do not remember it. I can’t take a film with a colon in its title seriously. Currently in pre-production is Elizabeth: The Dark Age. What? I mostly want to know how much make-up Blanchett will have to wear to look 70 in 16th century years.
Elizabeth is really historically inaccurate, and really bombastic but it did bring something different to the subgenre. Elizabeth has a beautiful colour palette: purple, yellow, red, black and grey, punctuated with bolts of blue. The filmmaking is not exactly exceptional but Kapur was definitely trying. In the scene where Elizabeth elects to dance with her paramour, the Earl of Leicester in front of her court, the camera jump cuts between Elizabeth & Leicester, highlighting the theatricality of their gestures with the suggestion that this is a dance of the mind performed daily.
The best thing I can say about Elizabeth is that Cate Blanchett is perfectly cast in the title role. Elizabeth physically resembled Blanchett in her youth. (Before Queen Bess ruined her skin with poison pancake make-up). Blanchett carries the sophisticated dignity and innate intelligence we associate with the Virgin Queen.
If you’ve got Cate Blanchett, what else do you need?
- Wolf Hall
“Do you think I’ve promoted you for the charm of your presence? I keep you because you are a serpent.”
You need Wolf Hall.
All joking aside because I don’t think I could make fun of this series if I tried. It is very slow, very serious, and deeply intelligent. Based off Hilary Mantel’s novel of the same name, Wolf Hall chronicles not a monarch but the monarch’s lawyer, Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell was known as Henry VIII’s viper, who enacted the king’s will by any means necessary. In Wolf Hall Cromwell is a person tryingto function within the broken system of the king’s desires. It covers the years of Cromwell’s rise to become Henry VIII’s consigliere in the era of Anne Boleyn.
History does not look too favorably upon Cromwell under Henry VIII. I mean, he was known as the king’s viper. Damian Lewis, who maintains an undercurrent of selfish cruelty normally reserved for troubled 5 year olds and serial killers, plays Henry VIII. You can’t imagine spending two minutes with Henry and not understanding that you just have to do what he says. Imagine the worst boss you ever had and then imagine if that boss could have you beheaded if you fucked up.
Incidentally, that is exactly what happened to Cromwell in 1540.
In the series, Cromwell just wants to get on with it and keep the body count low. In episode 5 the king loses consciousness for 2 hours after a jousting accident. Fearing the worst, Cromwell immediately calls for the Princess Mary (known by history and scared children as Bloody Mary) to be brought to court. He does this for a few reasons, mostly because Mary is just a kid and if the king is dead the Boleyn’s might murder her. Anne Boleyn is pretty pissed and accuses Cromwell of betrayal. Cromwell then poetically explains that she is missing the point:
“I cannot hold the throne for an infant in the cradle. I cannot hold the throne for an unborn child.”
England was experiencing some heavy religious upheaval at this time. Inviting a child to sit on the throne would have been akin to holding a Civil War Party.
Anne still doesn’t get it.
“I cannot hold the throne for an unborn baby”
The final episodes of the series focus on Cromwell’s role in the fall of Anne Boleyn. Historically speaking his part is hotly debated. In the series he implicates her because he has no choice. He is too close to the king to go against him or back away. He can either suffer the same fate as those who came before, or sell his soul to the King of England.
In the penultimate scene of episode 6, Cromwell is a spectator to the execution of Anne Boleyn. Afterward,he visits the king. Henry sees Cromwell and opens his arms in wide embrace. Cromwell approaches like a man on his way to the block. They embrace and the camera cuts first to Henry’s beatific grin, then to Cromwell’s face smothered by the king’s fine red robe.
So we’re clear, I am not done here. There are so many Tudor related shows that have come out in recent years. I will have to get back to you. In parting let us call this 1500+ words about the Tudor’s on film “part 1”. Actually, it’s “Part I”.