A Tudor Potluck
by Kristin Battestella
These miniseries, movies, and documentaries both modern and classic shine the light on Good Queen Bess and company – juicy details, scandals, beheadings, and all.
Elizabeth I – Helen Mirren (The Tempest), Jeremy Irons (High Rise), Toby Jones (Berberian Sound Studio), and Hugh Dancy (Hannibal) star in this acclaimed 2005 two-part HBO co-production. It's 1579 and the unmarried Bess is still without an heir despite the vulnerability of succession, religious strife, and courtiers disliking the overly familiar Earl of Leicester. A symbolic dressing down removes the bejeweled gowns and gilded facade in favor of stays and medical exams saying she's still capable of bearing children – because marriage is for heirs only according to her chancellors. Affectionate bedside chats let the viewer in with the woman behind the throne as she remains outwardly bemused and unfettered by the marital talk but inwardly bored with her council questioning when she is allowed to think or feel anything for herself. Chamberlains are aware of the coming and goings between the bedroom back stairs, and the men look the right mature with swords, capes, and plumes. Despite assassination attempts, dungeons, the rack, and slightly small sets; the golds, rich reds, detailed woodwork, candles, lovely window light, and bright courtyards create an intimate warmth. The camera flows with the movements from room to room – crossing the fine line between private woman and public chambers. Jealous Bess can't marry the earl she wants, courtiers go behind her back, and there are few people to trust amid awkward French courtships, boat rides, and disguises. Of course certain elements are familiar to the well versed Tudor audience, yet the made under Mirren shines with Elizabeth's impressive personality, dancing charm, and lovable infectiousness. It's ironic, however, that everyone says she is so beautiful in obvious flattery, and The Queen is rightfully annoyed when one and all push against her happiness – doubling her heartbreak after falling through proposals. Leicester thinks too highly of his position, yet she will not suffer fools no matter how disappointed. Elizabeth chops off the hand of a writer for his protesting pamphlet, and her chancellors prefer that made of stone rule who does what they tell her, caring not whether she wants a child or to be loved. Surprise meetings with Mary of Scots provide great woman to woman conversation, for only these two ladies can completely understand such an impasse before Dutch aide, conspiracy letters, and executions. After all, women can't be the gentle sex because they know more cruelty. Brutal flayings, quartering alive, and Latin prayers create intensity, however this drama relies less on the lavishness of other melodramatic productions and more on the politics of words and intrigue in the interplay. The first hour alone is dense, award worthy television taking the crown deeper with humility, personal frank, and religious war often spoken in same breath. There's a delicate balance between letting privy men influence her and showing them who's anointed queen. Bess honors the army for their love and sacrifice rather than courage as a king would, but she rises to the armada occasion with famous speeches as the off camera battle sharpens the personal poignant. By 1589, Elizabeth has a slightly pathetic crush on the Earl of Essex, and her elder pure white make up contrasts the womanly undressing that started Part 1. Mirrors are banished and jousts are more about courtiers and spectators whispering on who's in The Queen's favor. Bess watches the men spar, dresses a leg wound, and has some symbolic ankle saucy – she knows its foolish to be desired when she can't show her love. The Queen won't stay in the bedroom but goes to her council where she can whip the men into shape with her leadership. She's not afraid to lash out and show her anger but does threaten the witnesses to her outrage with death. Can one enjoy her royal company or is it all using each other for more influence? Rumors of poison, finger pointing accusations, and false evidence help the not so suave Essex move above his station. New love triangles, deaths, and secret meetings with James VI accelerate Irish discord, divided opinions, and would be rebellions – but it's nothing an arrest or graphic beheading can't fix. While this series doesn't feature all her favorites or serve as a total later reign biography, the focus on such two related loves shows how Bess may have bent from time to time but never totally yields. The Queen goes from romantic tears to Royal We, placing public devotion over self with surreal color and camerawork combining for a graceful denouement.
Henry VII: The Winter King – Author Thomas Penn hosts this 2013 documentary hour chronicling the somewhat obscure – compared to the Richard III infamy before and head rolling Henry VIII after – but no less ruthless, paranoid, dark, and oppressive reign of Henry VII. From the 1485 Millford Haven landing to gaining support for an unlikely victory at Bosworth Field, onscreen text dates and places the previous Wars of the Roses with the Earl of Richmond's precarious claim to the throne through illegitimate Beauforts and a strategic marriage to Elizabeth of York. On location Bosworth prayers, Westminster Abbey art, Hampton Court comparisons, and Parliament archives detail the coronation and dynastic struggles through medieval scrolls, period paintings, music texts, and genealogical rolls. Henry feared he'd loose the crown the way he got it, but shrewd legislation and assuring his lineage help quell any rebellions and eliminate rivals to the throne. Visits to the Medieval Coin Collection at the British Museum present vintage gold pieces stamped with the Tudor rose – despite extensive architecture projects and increasing wealth, Henry used spies to root out corrupt chamberlains and previous allies bankrolling York revivals. The king himself was vigilant with his own financial books and privy accounts, and surviving documents reveal standard payments for falcons from Hungary as well as rewards from some undercover espionage. By the turn of the century, there was little resistance to his tight, underhanded grip thanks to new engagements with Spain, however fatal family illnesses and Elizabeth's death in childbirth cause the distrustful Henry to retreat before cracking down with more building splendor, ruling with fear rather than love thanks to extortion fines and financial ruin making it too costly for anyone to usurp him. Henry's controversial Council Learned in the Law covertly circumvents any legalese with prison sentences, rigged juries, and intimated judges, but threats from Suffolk and dangerous jousts take a toll on his health. Period depictions show Henry VII's deathbed transition – which was kept secret for two days while courtiers cleaned up the regime's loose ends with trumped up executions of unlikable chancellors, allowing young seventeen year old Henry VIII to issue kinder reform. Henry VII's reign was a rocky but necessary road assuring a new English dynasty; his architectural achievements still stand, and this tour fittingly concludes at his grand mausoleum silently beside his tomb. Although the booming music and night time scenery plays at something sinister, the moody here remains scholarly before flashy, keeping this friendly for the classroom or the more learned Tudor audience.
A Stuart Bonus!
Mary Queen of Scots: The Red Queen – Scottish castles, ruinous abbeys, and highland scenery anchor this 2014 documentary on that other devout catholic Mary thorn in protestant Elizabeth's side. The narration admits the similar names are confusing, but the voiceover meanders with unnecessary time on Mary's parents James V and his french wife Mary of Guise amid Henry VIII marital turmoil, perilous successions, and religious switches. Opera arias interfere further as we stray into Mary Mary quite contrary rhymes, earlier Robert the Bruce connections, Tudor rivalries, French alliances, and the possible poisoning of infant Stuart sons before finally getting to Mary being crowned at nine months old in defiance of male inheritance laws. Rough Wooing tensions and early betrothal plans with Edward VI lead to isolation at Stirling Castle before a pleasant childhood at the French court, but a princess education and marriage to the Dauphin in 1558 ultimately send the young widow back to Scotland as regent in 1561. Catholic unrest always leaves Mary on unfriendly terms with Bess alongside John Knox reformations at home, misogynist rhetoric, and a nasty marriage to her first cousin Henry Stuart. The need for an heir, murdered lovers, adulterous pregnancies, revenge – loyal nobles take sides as the Catholic baptism of the future James VI divides public opinion. Men with syphilis, suspicious gunpowder accidents, marital traps, and final meetings with her year old son begat possible kidnappings, a new marriage to the Earl of Bothwell, revolts, imprisonment at Loch Leven, abdication, and rumors of stillborn twins with unknown fathers. It might have been interesting to see scholars contrasting bad girl Mary with her marriages and male interference versus Elizabeth The Virgin Queen rather than the all over the place narrative. Bess holds Mary captive in various English castles for eighteen years until religious coups, forged letters, an absentee trial, and the final treasonous Babington Plot. Mary goes out in style with symbolic red despite her botched beheading, with an ironic final resting place at Westminster Abbey beside Mary Tudor and Elizabeth I. This rambling hour confuses itself and repeats anecdotes in what should have been a tighter, more informative focus. However, such superficial storyteller basics can actually be a good classroom compliment with additional materials.
But A Surprising Skip
Young Bess – Charles Laughton (reprising his role from The Private life of Henry VIII), Deborah Kerr (From Here to Eternity), and Stewart Granger (Caesar and Cleopatra) join the eponymous Jean Simmons (Guys and Dolls) for this romanticized 1953 tale featuring pomp scoring, medieval title cards, fine castle interiors, Tudor hoods, colorful frocks, royal feasts, and bitter beheadings. Unfortunately, annoying, over the top support recounts the already familiar Anne Boleyn exit and repeated new wife introductions in an out of place Mother Goose style narration. The bemusing, petulant little girl whimsy is at odds with the serious chopping block drama, and the defiant teen Bess rolls over once Thomas Seymour sweeps in to subdue her. Now, not only was the older Granger married to the supple Simmons, but he also had an affair with Kerr – who plays his wife onscreen. History would also describe Thomas Seymour's relationship with the young Elizabeth as not exactly healthy to say the least, and it's uncomfortably odd to see such a great, shrewd queen reduced to a stubborn, moon-eyed princess. Can you imagine the uproar today if a historic abusive relationship was depicted as a romance orchestrated by the victim? o_O Bess makes her stepfather jealous of her Danish marriage proposals by kissing Barnaby the whipping boy before getting slapped by her Admiral Uncle Dad Tom, which she loves! Soft glow cameras on the ladies are likewise so fuzzy that the picture looks blurry to HD accustomed eyes. The sets are small, outdoor scenes and matte shots are obvious fakery, brief naval scenes and hokey armor are almost humorous, and the villainous Lord Protector is apparent thanks to his greasy mustache. Henry's larger than life whims and death bed sincere make up for the slow start and the bright, colorful dance scene is the best part of the film – yet for something supposedly about Bess, the focus strays with arguing councilors and ambitious relations. An entire segment is narrated by the typically mid century little brother King Edward, transitioning from his intended as humorous wish that his uncle would “D-Y-E” to inquests and solemn betrayals. Meandering character motivations add to the inaccuracies, the behind the scenes relationships muddle with what's onscreen, and the of its time artistic license feels embarrassing to the well versed Tudor viewer. Simmons gives a lovely performance, and audiences who love classic melodrama can enjoy this. However, it's tough to suspense belief with this kind of blind fiction.