03 March 2009

Henry VIII

Henry VIII Fine Television Production
By Kristin Battestella
Henry VIII

I’ve always had an interest in history and British monarchy, even before this recent resurgence with The Tudors and The Other Boleyn Girl. I like the former greatly and heartily dislike the ladder. So I took a chance on the 2003 British television production Henry VIII. The Verdict? Praise.

When Henry VIII (Ray Winstone) becomes the King of England, he quickly becomes obsessed with securing a male heir. Bastard sons and daughter Princess Mary will not do, despite the continued prayers from her mother, Queen Katherine of Aragon (Assumpta Serna). When Anne Boleyn (Helena Bonham Carter) comes to court, Henry is quickly smitten. He goes against the Pope and seeks to divorce his wife, forever dividing England and the Catholic Church.

Henry VIII is more historically accurate than the recent youthful, sexy Tudor adaptations. Its focus on Henry leaves some history and persons by the wayside, but this tight style allows for more soul searching on the monarch’s part. The limited hours, however, speed the storyline up greatly. The treasonous Duke of Buckingham is dealt with very quickly, and in brutal action sequences rather than political talks and trials. Likewise, the jousts are brief, but loud and vicious. The costumes, sets, looks and locales are all authentic and charming. Expenses onscreen were not spared, thankfully, though the candlelight and colors seem old world and saturated somehow- not as vibrant as those other shows. However, this fits the castle sets and historical locations.

It is unfortunately tough to tell who is who at court, and the names and titles of all the dukes and graces are not always given in Henry VIII. The Reformation is also thrust to the viewer very suddenly with secret meetings and more people that you’re not sure who is who. I appreciate the respect the audience is given; assuming we are all educated enough to know the back story of Mary Boleyn, The Reformation, and Queen Katherine of Aragon’s marriage to Henry’s ill brother Arthur. I do fear that this also makes Henry VIII too highbrow for the casual, young viewer.

Normally I adore Helena Bonham Carter (The Wings of the Dove, Harry Potter, Howard’s End, Sweeney Todd), but it seems I’m alone in feeling she is miscast here as Anne Boleyn. She doesn’t seem naturally pretty enough to charm the king and is far too fresh and even bitchy towards Henry. She also turns from hating him to infatuation to love far too quickly, and then we’re supposed to feel happy for her when she becomes Queen. It is then, somehow pleasing, to see her dramatic trial and subsequent dicey disposal.

Ray Winstone (Beowulf, King Arthur) is not a heartthrob like those other King Henrys we’ve recently seen, but his hefty look and booming voice are more in keeping with the historical Henry we dramatize so much. His early devotion to Queen Katherine is beautiful and well played, unlike his obsessed letters and shout outs over Anne Boleyn. He doesn’t feel as charming when chasing after Anne, and after this queenly switcheroo, I don’t feel sorry for Henry when Elizabeth is born-instead of the son he so eagerly desires. I like the older King who wants a son to secure his lineage, not the lovesick horny guy chasing a woman whose sister he has already gotten pregnant.

Assumpta Serna (Sharpe) is a delight as Katherine of Aragon. She’s a bit too humble and overly devout, but her Spanish authenticity is wonderful. I think she is also made up to look older and uglier than she is, but we see too little of her nonetheless. Cardinal Wosley (David Suchet, Poirot), Thomas Cromwell (Danny Webb, Doctor Who), and the Duke of Norfolk (Mark Strong, Sharpe) also seem wasted in this first part. Jane Seymour (Emilia Fox, Silent Witness) concludes the wives showcased in part 1 of Henry VIII, but again her plainness doesn’t seem worthy of the king.

Director Pete Travis (Endgame) and scriptwriter Peter Morgan (The Other Boleyn Girl, The Queen, Frost/Nixon) blend tight, old fashioned dialogue with swift action, and the music from veteran composer Robert Lane (Merlin) compliments the screen with period authenticity and classic score. While I’m glad this series is available on DVD, there are no features and subtitles on disc 1. Despite the talented (but misused) cast, the rushed time and limited length hinder Henry VIII. Fine production values and a strong performance from Winstone, however, make the show. I am to say the least, eager for Part 2.

Now that second wife Anne Boleyn (Helena Bonham Carter) has been beheaded, King Henry VIII (Ray Winstone) has found brief happiness-and a son- with Jane Seymour (Emilia Fox). Unfortunately Catholic revolts led by soldier Robert Aske (Sean Bean) cause trouble for the King, as does the marital meddling of Thomas Cromwell (Danny Webb) and the Duke of Norfolk (Mark Strong).

Ray Winstone is still on form as the King torn between love, the church, wives, and betrayal for part 2 of Henry VIII. We have brief moments of a mournful, reflective Henry, but we’re also treated to an equally deceptive, ambitious, and gluttoness ruler. It’s not uneven acting on Winstone’s part; Henry VIII was just that messed up. In fact, Winstone’s soft, gentile style mixed with his boisterous body and voice bring life into that famous portrait we spend so much time dramatizing.

All right, I can’t help myself, so I may as well get to it. I adored Sean Bean’s appearance as Yorkshire revolt leader Robert Aske. Though the departed Helena Bonham carter is still billed second for this latter half and Bean is given ‘and Sean Bean’; the Sharpe actor rivals the power and onscreen weight of Ray Winstone like no pretty female actress can. His scenes are brief; but the medieval leather clad, horse-riding Bean is a delight to route for. We ended Part 1 largely with Anne Boleyn- seeing Henry last as an angry and vengeful husband. Opening Henry VIII here with the brutal destruction of Catholic monasteries and valiant words from Bean’s Aske instantly sets us up for the wicked and self-indulgent King that is to come. I wish there had been more of Winstone and Bean together. Do you hear me casting directors? Hear ye, hear ye!

Unfortunately, Jane Seymour (Emilia Fox) comes and goes too quickly in Henry VIII. Understandable in the scope of history, but Henry’s infatuation with her is definitely rushed in comparison with all the romance given to Anne Boleyn. Likewise Anne of Cleeves (Pia Girard) comes and goes in only a handful of minutes, and it is again tough to tell who is who as Henry’s court changes with his wives. Thankfully, there’s a bit more time spent on Catherine Howard (Emily Blunt, The Devil Wears Prada). Ray Winstone is considerably made up and aged for the film, so it is bizarre to see the bearded and hefty King with the beautiful teenager Catherine. We know this odd pair will not end well. And of course, we conclude with Catherine Parr (Clare Holman, Blood Diamond)-the lucky one in the school phrase ‘Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived.’

The final fifteen minutes of Henry VIII gives us a wonderful deathbed sequence from Winstone, and of course, the obligatory fates of his children Edward, Mary, and Elizabeth. Of all the Tudoresque productions out there, they do have one common theme. Henry VIII may have brought a lot of political and personal turmoil to his country, but through Elizabeth, he also brought about one of the greatest empires on earth.

Despite its lack of subtitles, disc 2 of Henry VIII fortunately has a thirty minute behind the scenes feature with reflections on history and drama from Ray Winstone, Helena Bonham Carter, Assumpta Serna, and Sean Bean. Henry VIII does pack a lot in its two parts-maybe too much- but it is historically accurate for the most part. There’s a bit of blood and violence amid all the old speaketh, but nothing too disturbing for today’s audiences. Where The Tudors and The Other Boleyn Girl are not for the young as well as old, teachers might enjoy a classroom showing of Henry VIII. Without all the sex and R rated romance, Henry VIII is also just right for parents wishing to give young folks some education. It has no doubt already been studied and dissected by Tudor aficionados. Fans of the cast will also enjoy. Buy or rent Henry VIII for a night of family history for you and yours. Off with her head!

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