Judge Ben Saylor has one word for Henry VIII's wives: pre-nup.
Our review of The Tudors: The Complete First Season, published January 2nd, 2008, is also available.
King takes Queen.
Showtime's original series The Tudors apparently enjoyed enough success in its freshman season to warrant another 10 episodes. Again flowing from the pen of writer Michael Hirst (Elizabeth), The Tudors: The Complete Second Season, like its predecessor, is chock-a-block with sex, drama, and political intrigue. There's something to be said for consistency.
Facts of the Case
King Henry VIII (Jonathan Rhys Meyers, August Rush), the Tudor ruler of England, seeks to have his marriage to the sonless Catherine of Aragon (Maria Doyle Kennedy, The Commitments) annulled so that he may wed his nubile, scheming paramour Anne Boleyn (Natalie Dormer, Casanova). When the Catholic Church, led by Pope Paul III (Peter O'Toole, Venus), refuses to grant the king's request, the impatient monarch breaks with Rome and marries Anne without papal dispensation, launching a period of reform in England. In an effort to legitimize his new union, the king orders that an oath be administered that recognizes only the offspring of his marriage to Anne to be in line to the throne, and also recognizes the king as the absolute head of both state and church in England. This oath, while sworn by many, leads to the execution of the king's former friend and chancellor, Sir Thomas More (Jeremy Northam, Enigma), who refuses to swear the oath. The ambitious Thomas Cromwell (James Frain, Into the Blue) becomes the new chancellor, wielding his power without mercy.
But when Queen Anne fails to produce the male heir Henry so desperately wants, he begins to take an interest in the lovely Jane Seymour (Anita Briem, Journey to the Center of the Earth), the daughter of a friend of the king's. Soon, the Queen finds herself under arrest on charges of adultery and incest, and is sentenced to death.
As one could probably surmise from my opening statement, if you liked Season One of Showtime's The Tudors, you will more than likely enjoy the series' sophomore outing. Creator Michael Hirst has sole writing credit for every episode, just as he did for the first season, and the directors remain largely consistent as well.
So, for those not familiar with the series, what does this mean exactly? Briefly, The Tudors is a well-acted, well-written historical fiction (albeit one that's heavy on the suds at times), with occasional dollops of nudity and violence to spice things up a bit. While historical purists will undoubtedly quibble at the creative license Hirst employs, The Tudors remains a highly enjoyable series due largely to its talented cast and smart, compelling (if not completely flawless) writing.
The Tudors: The Complete Second Season sees the welcome return of most of the key cast members of Season One. Interestingly, however, in watching The Tudors, I often find that the supporting characters are much more enjoyable to watch than Henry, despite Rhys Meyers' forceful take on the role. I'll start with Maria Doyle Kennedy, one of the standouts of Season One. While her role is necessarily diminished for the second season, she still nails every scene she's in, imbuing her Queen Catherine with dignity and sadness. It will be a shame to move onto Season Three without her.
Another character who won't be returning for Season Three is Sir Thomas More, which will come as a surprise to no one who has read/seen A Man for All Seasons. And while Paul Scofield won the Oscar for playing More in Fred Zinnemann's film of the Robert Bolt play, Jeremy Northam proves himself just as able to skillfully play the determined man of faith and conviction (and with a few more warts than one saw in A Man for All Seasons). More so than in Season One, faith plays a crucial role in Season Two, with More emerging as a man deeply torn between his affection and loyalty to both his king and his God. Northam does a first class job conveying this conflict and, like Kennedy, will be sorely missed come Season Three.
Season Two of The Tudors also sees the rise of Thomas Cromwell, meaning we see more of James Frain, who plays the king's snake of a right-hand man. Cromwell is a perfect villain, and Frain is very low-key in his portrayal, even managing to throw in what appear to be occasional twinges of regret at his despicable actions on behalf of the king. Far from a mustache-twirling monster, Frain employs subtlety to great effect.
The most notable addition to the Season Two cast, however, is undoubtedly Peter O'Toole as Pope Paul III. While he doesn't appear in every episode, and never for more than a scene or two, old pro O'Toole tackles the role with relish, and it's a delight to watch his silver-tongued pontiff harangue the king from his Vatican home.
Then there's the Boleyn family. In Season Two, Nick Dunning (Alexander) continues to impress as the power-hungry father of Anne, and Padraic Delaney, who was so memorable in Ken Loach's The Wind That Shakes the Barley, also stands out as her sleazy brother George.
But it's Anne, of course, who is the key Boleyn here, and with Season Two, Natalie Dormer is handed a real challenge from Hirst, who doesn't go out of his way to make Henry's second wife a sympathetic character. It was apparent from Season One that Anne was little better than her overambitious father, but this impression only continues to grow with Season Two. Even before she is officially crowned, Anne acts like a ruler, although unlike her predecessor, Anne's style is to act like a bully, doling out tirades and threats left and right. When her sister Mary (Perdita Weeks) happily announces her recent marriage to a penniless soldier, her father coldly disowns her, a decision Anne is quite content to support, chiding her sister for not securing her permission to marry first.
As Henry's infidelity increases, and Anne's miscarriages make her position more untenable, it becomes possible to feel for the character somewhat, but it's not easy, although the uniquely beautiful Dormer certainly gives the role her all. Her Anne is tough and sensual, but also, later in the season, frightened, alone and very vulnerable, to the point where when it finally comes time for her execution, I was able to muster some sympathy for Queen Anne.
The same can hardly be said of her husband, who is still the mercurial, petulant young man of Season One. Rhys Meyers' pouty portrayal certainly works for the series, but it doesn't lend itself to feeling anything approaching sympathy (or empathy) for the character. Indeed, when watching scenes between the king and queen, I sometimes found myself longing for another scene with members of the supporting cast.
In terms of story, Season Two of The Tudors marks something of a shift in concern from political to personal struggles. There is still the dizzying array of shifting alliances between France, the Holy Roman Empire and England (which bring to mind the fictional conflicts created by Big Brother in 1984) that was present in season 1, but beyond depicting Henry's reformation of the church, most of the drama involves people; in the first half, the focus is on More (which of course involves politics and religion), and in the second, Anne's plight moves to the forefront.
With the end of Season Two of The Tudors, Hirst has certainly given himself a challenge: With the assertive, dynamic Anne gone, will he make the monarch's successive wives as interesting, and if so, how? Right now, Jane Seymour seems nothing more than a pretty face in the few episodes she appears in during Season Two. Perhaps this will result in a shift back to more political wheeling and dealing of the variety depicted in Season One; time will tell.
The excellent production values of The Tudors continue with Season Two. Ousama Rawi's cinematography strikes just the right atmosphere, working wonders with candlelight and shadows. The series' directors all have a solid visual sense to complement Rawi's work. In addition, Joan Bergin's costumes are as ornate and easy on the eyes as ever, and Trevor Morris' musical score provides powerful (but not overpowering) backing to the drama on the screen.
The DVD of The Tudors: The Complete Second Season is similar to its predecessor in terms of audio and video quality; for such a well-shot series, the transfer isn't pristine. The show generally has a very dark look that doesn't always come through as richly and deeply as it should. The Dolby sound gets the job done, although it's relegated almost entirely to putting out dialogue and music. Regrettably, subtitles are again absent.
Extras, as with the first season, are again a disappointment. Beyond text-only biographies, photo galleries and two brief featurettes, "The Tower of London" and "Descendants of Henry," most of the "extras" are just episodes of other Showtime series. The fourth disc is also supposed to contain DVD-ROM-only content, but I wasn't able to access it on my computer, although from the description on the box, it looks like at least some of that content is, again, episodes of other Showtime programs. I don't count those as bonuses because they do nothing to enrich and/or enhance my enjoyment of the series itself. It's unfortunate that Hirst hasn't done any commentaries for The Tudors thus far; as the show's creator and sole writer, it would be great to hear his thoughts on the series.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
While Hirst's work with character on The Tudors is generally strong, there are some characters in Season Two that just don't seem to fit. One is Hans Matheson's Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury. Cranmer is an uninteresting character from the start, and while Matheson tries to inject what seems like reluctance or conflict into the character, it's really not enough, and watching Cranmer just leaves one longing for Sam Neill's superlative portrayal of Cardinal Wolsey in Season One.
Other supporting characters are given undue amounts of screen time, such as Jamie Thomas King's Sir Thomas Wyatt. A poet, member of court and former lover of Anne, Wyatt's inclusion adds absolutely nothing to the series, and Hirst would have done better to leave him out. The same goes for William Brereton (James Gilbert), a devout Catholic who bungles an assassination attempt on Anne early in the season and spends the remaining episodes looking like he's going to do something and then not doing much of anything at all.
If you liked Season One of The Tudors, I can't imagine that you would dislike its second season. Newcomers should probably rent this first, and even those who would buy this series should know that Showtime has again come up short in delivering a solid DVD presentation.
Not guilty, although Showtime is commanded to take an Oath of Improvement
stipulating that further DVD releases of the series are of higher quality.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Showtime Entertainment
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