Showtime’s The Tudors, which debuts this Sunday, tries to show us that the life of Henry VIII was one of great passions. The series, however, does not inspire great passions. The idea was good enough: to re-tell the story of Henry and Anne Boleyn, but turn the clock back to Henry VIII as a virile, fiery, ambitious and lusty young monarch, rather than the vain, gluttonous old letch he’s often been portrayed as. This had the added benefit, for Showtime, of having the king played by the toothsome young Jonathan Rhys-Meyers rather than, say, Oliver Platt.
But while the series is plenty lusty, with lots of naked flesh (just call him Henry VI-pack!) and plenty of, er, jousting, the show isn’t the dramatic reimagining Showtime bills it as. There’s little electricity between Henry and Anne (Natalie Dormer), whose ambassador father essentially pimps her out, to enhance the family’s position. The palace intrigues are, well, intriguing enough, bringing Sopranos-esque notes of bullying and intimidation to the affairs of state. (The show opens with a bloody whacking, as Henry’s uncle is murdered by French thugs in Italy.) Even though you could spoil them for yourself with a quick visit to Wikipedia, the playing-out of the machinations at court are the best reason to watch the series.
But The Tudors also seems to want to make the case that Henry was an ambitious, visionary, even intellectual monarch, and it’s here where the script fails most. Henry is a close friend of humanist philosopher Thomas More (Jeremy Northam), for instance, and makes the case that his novel ideas about morality and the relations among states affected Henry’s governance. How does the series show that Henry is a humanist? By having Henry say things like, “As a humanist, this pleases me.”
Later, Henry visits More (the author of the treatise Utopia) and mentions that he has been doing some reading. “I’ve received a gift from the Duke of Urbino,” Henry says. “It’s a book called the Prince, by a Florentine, Niccolo Machiavelli… It’s not like your book, Utopia. It’s less… utopian.” Which is (a) lame and (b) anachronistic, since the general term “utopian” didn’t exist before More wrote the book (More coined the title name) and wasn’t in general use until years afterward. It’s little like the scene in The Squid and the Whale in which Walt calls a Kafka novel “Kafkaesque,” except that we’re not meant to laugh at Henry.
Anyway, judging by the ad campaign for The Tudors–in which Henry is surrounded by women pictured from the chest down–most people will probably not watch the show as a work of literary history. As a glorified romance novel, it’s perfectly fine, but don’t expect Shakespeare. It’s less… Shakespearean.