Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees kept expecting this loutish incarnation of the great monarch to head-butt Cardinal Wolsey.
"This is The Godfather in tights."—Pete Travis, director
To paraphrase Thomas Hobbes, this new made-for-television biopic about the much-married monarch is best summed up as nasty, brutish, and long.
Facts of the Case
From the time he ascends to the throne of England, Henry VIII (Ray Winstone, Cold Mountain) has one overriding goal: to produce a son to inherit the crown. After almost twenty years of marriage with his late brother's widow, the strong-willed Katherine of Aragon (Assumpta Serna, the Sharpe series), he becomes infatuated with young Anne Boleyn (Helena Bonham-Carter, Fight Club) and decides to kill two birds with one stone by divorcing Katherine and marrying his new love. This decision causes a rift with the Catholic church and will result in increasing religious conflict during the course of Henry's reign—but all he can think of is the bewitching Anne. Anne further solidifies her position by inducing Henry to get rid of his trusted advisor and father figure Cardinal Wolsey (David Suchet, Poirot).
However, when Anne produces a daughter, not a son, Henry's attentions begin to stray. The solution that he finally arrives at is to have Anne executed and marry again: this time to the gentle Jane Seymour (Emilia Fox, The Republic of Love), whose ambitious brothers begin to exert more and more influence behind the scenes in court. At the same time, Henry must confront a former companion in arms, Robert Aske (Sean Bean, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring), who has begun to rally Catholics against the Protestant king. Jane delights Henry by producing his long-desired son, but she then dies. The king's next marriage—the brainchild of scheming Thomas Cromwell (Daniel Webb, Alien3)—is not to his taste at all, and he dispenses quickly with Anne of Cleves. His fifth bride, the toothsome young Catherine Howard (Emily Blunt, Poirot: Death on the Nile), is brought to his attention by another of the scheming Seymours, but she breaks the old king's heart with her infidelities. By the time the king takes his last bride, the sensible, devoted Catherine Parr (Clare Holman, Prime Suspect 6), he is ready for a nursemaid rather than a bed partner, and he is past producing more sons. When he dies, his last words to his own son Edward, the future king, show how much he has learned during his career as would-be father of sons.
The DVD cover offers a promising take on the famous king: It raises the question of how the "lithe, handsome seventeen-year-old" who ascended the throne became the "embittered, obese invalid" of his later years. Alas, the film itself doesn't seem interested in showing a change in the monarch. After a glimpse at the bratty teenaged prince (played by another actor), we see a Henry who starts his reign boorish and cranky and ends it that way, just with a larger waist measurement. Part of the problem here (but certainly not all) is casting: Although Ray Winstone is excellent at embodying the aged Henry, endowing him with real pathos and sympathy, as well as greatly resembling him physically, his performance as the younger Henry strikes many wrong notes. He never displays the charisma Henry was noted for in his youth, much less anything approaching regal bearing. Whereas the historical Henry was a learned man and a canny statesman, as well as a handsome man known for his athleticism, as embodied by Winstone he looks more like a neckless ex-football player and sounds like a lower-class lout. Indeed, Sean Bean, appearing here in a supporting role, would have been a much better choice to play the younger Henry, and his resemblance to Winstone is close enough that Winstone could have taken up the role for Henry's later years. The filmmakers' desire to create an unstuffy, modern version of the Renaissance monarch merely turns him into a boorish, violent plug-ugly.
And when I say "violent," boy howdy, do I mean violent. The film takes a downright salacious pleasure in violence, as if it were the era's equivalent of late-night cable TV. Here are a few examples off the top of my head:
• Five or six beheadings take place (I lost count), the first one
of which flings streamers of blood over the bystanders, and the worst of which
features a novice executioner who manages merely to wound the hapless victim on
his first two blows of the axe before finally putting him out of his misery.
I'm sure I've forgotten a few instances of torture, burning, and general hack-and-slashing, but that should be sufficient to let potential viewers know that they are not going to be seeing anything merry here about Merrie Olde England. There's not even any sense of the luxury and elegance of court life, except for lots of beautiful textiles. Offering some respite from all the violence, however, is a healthy dollop of sex, since Henry keeps trying to sire that son who will ensure the Tudor succession.
Here we come to another of the major problems with this production: the absurd screenplay. It frames the entire film with Henry's desire to obey his father's dying wish by siring a son. But any monarch, let alone one as cagey as the historical Henry, would have known without being told that he needed to have one or more legitimate sons to ensure the continuation of the royal line, so this deathbed command is entirely unnecessary—and Henry ends up looking dim for not thinking of it himself. It seems as if the screenwriters are trying to convince the audience that this compulsion to produce a son is a personal obligation rather than a political necessity, perhaps so that we don't find Henry so unsympathetic when he starts going through wives like Kleenex, callously disposing of them when they give him daughters. Or perhaps the screenwriters felt that the audience wouldn't "get" the necessity of a male heir without having the old king explain it to Henry—and, by extension, to us. Indeed, a tendency to place words in characters' mouths purely for the viewers' benefit is woefully evident throughout the film, so that much of the dialogue consists of characters reminding each other who they are: "I am the king!" "I am your wife!" "You are a lawyer!" "You are the king!" On the rare occasions when the dialogue isn't name-tagging in this way, it jumbles acceptably historical-sounding speech with anachronistic modern constructions, the most popular of which is "shut up!" These problems greatly hinder the actors in creating credible performances.
The exclamation points in these quotations should also clue the viewer in to the generally overwrought atmosphere of the goings-on. This is a film in which somebody is always galloping madly across the landscape. The intention is obviously to create a sense of urgency and tension, but the story remains curiously uninvolving until well into its second half. The only really engaging figures we meet in the first two hours are the king's first two wives, the fiery, moving Katherine of Aragon and the intelligent, scheming Anne Boleyn. Helena Bonham-Carter easily steals the first half of the film as Anne, portraying this tragic young woman as independent, determined, and calculating, yet with the capacity for warmth, humor, and fierce loyalty. The only thing that doesn't ring true about this strong characterization is the high-minded nobility she displays at her execution. In fact, Anne emerges as so much more intelligent and practical than her royal husband that the implication seems to be that their daughter, the future Queen Elizabeth I, inherited all her best qualities from her mother and took after her father only in her red hair and hot temper—an implication that definitely sells the historical Henry short.
The look of the film is also a point against it. Again, the filmmakers have attempted to eschew pretty pageantry in favor of realism, which means lots of dingy colors and hazy lighting. Although the film appears here in widescreen, that seems moot, since there are very few scenes that make use of the kind of wide vistas for which the 1.85:1 aspect ratio is an advantage. More often than not director Pete Travis uses hand-held cameras, plus lots of trendy quick cuts and slow-mo effects in the many combat scenes. If his intention is to make the action more credible by making it less visually appealing, he has succeeded in the latter attempt at least. There's also an enormous amount of grain in many darker scenes—and the film abounds in darker scenes. The audio track is without obvious flaw, and we hear every dying scream, sizzle of hot pokers, and swoosh of descending swords with great clarity and resonance. The musical score by Rob Lane, however, is so heavy-handed and rife with cliché that I rather wished it hadn't been presented so clearly.
The extra feature for this disc is a half-hour behind-the-scenes featurette consisting primarily of film clips, sprinkled with tiny snippets of interviews with Winstone, Bonham-Carter, Assumpta Serna, David Suchet, Charles Dance (who appears as the Duke of Buckingham), Joss Ackland (Henry VII), Emilia Fox, Sean Bean, and Michael Maloney (Archbishop Cranmer), as well as the director and producers. Without the film clips, this featurette would probably run no more than five minutes.
Some good performances and the touching depiction of the aged king notwithstanding, this new biopic of Henry VIII is a disappointing one. It will leave most viewers without any sense of Henry's greatness, merely of his flaws. It may also leave sensitive viewers with upset stomachs. Admirers of Bonham-Carter and Winstone will want to give it a rental, but most of the other fine actors who appear here—such as Suchet and Bean—aren't allowed to shine, which will disappoint their fans. As for me, I've never been more nostalgic for Charles Laughton.
According to his own confession, director Pete Travis is guilty of a misguided attempt to portray Henry VIII as a "gangster king." Ray Winstone is free to go, and the court further awards him a lifetime supply of throat lozenges in recognition of his tireless shouting.
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