Directed by Steve Shill et al
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 anamorphic
Running Time: 559 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, 2.0 stereo English; 2.0 mono Spanish
Release Date: January 1, 2008
Review Date: December 24, 2007
Many aspects of the tumultuous life and reign of England’s Henry VIII have been fodder for dozens of films and television programs. Showtime’s The Tudors might not rank as the best of these endeavors, but it’s certainly ambitious, colorfully intriguing, and packed with incident both true and fabricated. It’s not quite at the level of historical fiction; great chunks of the story told in the first season are indeed accurate, but there’s just enough fiction added to the narrative to keep the melodramatic timbre of the series chugging along on all cylinders.
The king’s story here begins in the last years of his marriage to his first wife Katherine of Aragon (Maria Doyle Kennedy). She has given birth to many children, but only one has survived, their daughter Mary. Desperate to produce a male heir and feeling that it’s going to be hopeless with Katherine, the king (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) makes it his job to rid himself of her and seek a new wife elsewhere. The problem, of course, is that they are both Catholic, a religion that famously frowns on divorce, so the king must have his commissioner Cardinal Wolsey (Sam Neill) find him a loophole so his first marriage can end and his second begin.
The king has other ambitions. He seeks a cause that will make him legendary among British kings. He toys with the idea of a war against France. Sidetracking from that, he then attempts to bring all of the great countries of Europe together in a pact promising peace for all or a united front against any country who breaks its pledge. In his zeal, he betroths his daughter to two different princes in attempting to gain important alliances for England. And as active as he is on the political front, he is no less stalwart as a womanizer or as an athlete, and much time is spent watching the king test his prowess in many different contests (tennis, jousting, archery, wrestling, vaulting, gambling) and with many different women.
But as monumental a figure as the king is, he’s not the only focus of the series. His sister, his best friends, and his ministers all have parts to play in this pageant, and their intrigues, their sexual and political games are no less involving or habitually watchable as those of the king.
Jonathan Rhys Meyers has the bearing and charisma for the role of the king, and the actor has obviously spent considerable time in the gym to become the athlete the young Henry VIII was known to be. No amount of training, however, will add height to his frame. The king was abnormally tall (well over six feet) for the age in which he lived, and Rhys Meyers does not have height on his side. Charisma is also a very important quality for the men who are in his inner circle. Sam Neill is a superb Cardinal Wolsey, all smirking conniver and manipulator whose fortunes rise and fall during the show’s first season. Jeremy Northam gives us a Sir Thomas More with infinitely more colors than the renowned humanist is usually shown to have in other productions. And as the ambitious snakes in the pit circling the king looking for any opening in which to strike a blow for their own ends, Callum Blue, Henry Czerny, Henry Cavill, James Frain (as Cromwell whose part will only grow more in prominence in the seasons to come), and Nick Dunning are all superb. And the cast has such astonishing depth of outstanding talent that when masterful actors such as Steven Waddington as Buckingham and Kris Holden-Ried as William Compton leave the story, their places are easily filled with actors playing characters of equal interest.
As for the ladies of the court, Maria Doyle Kennedy has the regal bearing, pride, and Spanish accent to make her a believably tragic Katherine. Natalie Dormer’s Anne Boleyn moves from humble to haughty over the course of the season with a wonderfully kittenish poise and assurance. Only Gabrielle Anwar as Henry’s scheming and spoiled sister Margaret doesn’t always reach the level of performance of her co-stars.
The Tudors has the rich, opulent look that one would expect for a program about one of Britain’s greatest royal dynasties, and all the trappings of the period: the clothes, the music and dancing, the castles, courts, and landscapes all perfectly portray an era very familiar to history buffs. The writing of the series’ ten episodes by Michael Hirst, however, puts the drama in the context that even those allergic to history can appreciate and very possibly enjoy. Dallas’ J.R. Ewing and Dynasty’s Blake Carrington have nothing on Henry VIII when it comes to bedding ladies, plotting takeovers, or ruling their kingdoms. This historical drama can rank right alongside the best melodramas modern television can muster.
The Tudors produced ten episodes for its first season. The episodes were not titled, so no list of episodes appears here. They are presented on four discs in the DVD set.
The series is presented on Showtime in 1080i, and these 1.78:1 down converted episodes are presented with anamorphic enhancement. Sadly, the image on these discs is something of a disappointment. Though close-ups are reasonably sharp, too much of the lush photography and sumptuous trappings are soft looking with contrast lacking. Color saturation is more than adequate, but sharpness is spotty especially in the first half of the box’s ten episodes. To their credit, the transfers are clean and free from edge enhancement or other artifacts. Each episode has been divided into 9 chapters with the exception of episode 1 which has 7 chapters.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track leans more toward the front channels than the rears, but music certainly is spread through all the available channels (including some good use of the LFE channel), and there are some surprising ambient effects that make themselves known in the rears from time to time. At other times, however, passing horses or crowds of people running and shouting would seem to be natural situations for using front to rear panning, but it doesn’t happen. An additional note: the DVDs default to the Dolby 2.0 stereo track so one must manually choose the 5.1 track with each disc.
Though not feature rich by any means, the set does provide some bonus material.
“Production Design” gives a too brief overview by designer Tom Conroy of the sets built, the Irish locations used, and the dramatic liberties taken in constructing and decorating the sets that are used in the filming of the series. This 4-minute feature is presented in nonanamorphic widescreen.
“Costume Design” gives an even more important aspect of the series a vignette that doesn’t do justice to the astounding number of period clothes needed for this series. Concentrating on the wardrobe for Henry VIII, Katherine, and Anne, costume designer Joan Bergin barely mentions the clothes for the other principals or the large group of extras on the show. This nonanamorphic feature runs 5¼ minutes.
The set’s best extra is a very interesting tour of the Tudors Historical Sites. Though these sites are not used for location shooting (the series is shot in Ireland and these sites are in London), professional tour guide Mark Conroy takes us to five select locations: the town of Greenwich, the Tower of London, Thomas More’s Crosby Hall, Apothecaries Hall where the king’s divorce trial took place, and Cardinal Wolsey’s Hampton Court Palace which was presented to King Henry as a gift. This nonanamorphic tour lasts 22½ minutes.
A photo gallery offers ten portraits of the actors in and out of costume.
Paramount has included on the fourth disc one episode each of This American Life (anamorphic widescreen), Californication (anamorphic widescreen), and Penn & Teller’s Bullshit! (full frame).
Other trailers for available Paramount TV series include Ghost Whisperer, Criminal Minds, Twin Peaks, Jericho, and the CSI franchise.
The Tudors is a visually rich and dramatically rewarding slight reworking of history in episodic form. For those who find this period of British history fascinating, it’s a most enjoyable series despite a few fluctuations with the truth.