The Tudors returns for a rather triumphant third season. The series attempts to modernize the story more than a little. Henry’s attire is more akin to a rock star than a 16th century ruler. The language is also more updated, often filled with modern colloquialisms and the like. The story of Henry VIII is well known, but this is not the Henry your history teachers told you about. This Henry is a slim, energetic man. There are only hints in regard to his famous lust for food. His appetites for women are not so subtly portrayed. The series follows Henry’s alliances and break-ups with France and his growing disfavor of members of his own court. If the series is to be believed, Anne Boleyn was placed in his path by her scheming father. In any case, by the third episode his growing infatuation with Boleyn takes center stage in the series. Henry grows weary of the Church after he is constantly blocked from divorcing his Queen Catherine to marry Boleyn. This is also the story of his own rise and fall along with the Church’s influence on England’s culture. There is an almost soap opera aspect to the storytelling, which is admitted by the show’s writer, who credits shows like Dallas and Dynasty as well as Rome and The Sopranos as inspiration. Side stories like a gay musician’s coming of age populate the background, but serve merely as distractions. When The Tudors works best is when we are with Henry and his court engaging in matters of global importance.
Let’s talk about the cast. At first I must say I completely hated Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Henry. But that was last year, and by the third episode I absolutely loved his performance. He commands the screen whenever he is on it. James Frain gets a ton of time as Thomas Cromwell, who is advising the king to his own ends. He plays the part with little emotion, but it does fit the role quite effectively. Alan Van Sprang plays the King’s assassin and spy, Sir Francis. He is a character that moves in and out during the season, having less screen time than you might imagine, but he makes the most of it. Annabelle Wallis gets the unenviable task of following a strong female lead, now playing Jane Seymour. She’s not near as attractive or as good an actress. She’s not there all that long, of course, and manages to hold her own. Still the shadow of Natalie Dormer remains throughout.
The show was filmed not in England, but in neighboring Ireland. There are some pretty vistas to enjoy here, to be sure. The locations add a sense of reality to the show and are always a welcome balance from the dreary interiors. The episodes are paced well, and for the most part the hour passes with alarming speed. But it is the soap opera approach that brings the series down at each turn. There is so much here that the show could have been great but must settle for being pretty good.
The third season picks up right where the second left us. Ann has been executed, and Henry is ravishing the churches and abbeys of the Roman establishment. He has set up a group of his own bishops to develop the tenets of the new Church Of England. There is also the subject of having a new Queen. Henry searches wide and far to find a new queen and ends up in an unhappy marriage in order to secure an alliance against the Vatican inspired pending invasions. Only when the invasions fail to appear does he decide to annul yet another marriage, finding his next queen in the person of Jane Seymour. It’s dangerous to be one of the King’s handlers as Henry faces rebellion within and intrigue from afar. The reign is beginning to come apart somewhat and Henry still suffers from the wound he received jousting years ago. It refuses to heal, and the infection almost kills him on more than one occasion. All of these things conspire to foul the mood of King Henry VIII. It makes for a tumultuous time in history, but some rather compelling television drama.
Each episode of The Tudors is presented in its original broadcast aspect ratio of 1.78:1 Overall this is a very nice transfer. I found color reproduction to be stunning at times, allowing the richness of greens to take advantage of the nice locations. Black levels are often superb, allowing a fine level of detail. Still, there is a nearly fatal flaw to contend with. It was a mistake to cram three episodes on one disc. There is far too much of a compression artifact problem. Unfortunately, a fine transfer and a beautiful example of cinematography are too often tainted by unforgivable levels of artifact and pixilation.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 is not terribly aggressive, but there are times when it opens up a bit and allows you to feel some space in the audio. It appears that horses, both galloping and whinnying, are the most common features left to the rear speakers. Dialog is very important and is handled well here. You will have no trouble hearing the sometimes flowery speech. The score comes through often grandly, but there’s not much happening out of the sub woofers.
Like the previous seasons there isn’t much here. Another two episodes of another series isn’t really much of an extra for me. Most of the rest are to be found online through a CD-Rom option. The only other feature is an interactive Henry VIII timeline, where you can listen to 2-4 minute lectures of the various times in Henry’s rule.
Forget any historical accuracy here. This is really high drama and little more. HBO continues to lead the way in exceptional series. You have to give the writers credit for weaving enough of the events of the time into the story that it maintains at least a surface accuracy. It’s almost impossible to tell these kinds of stories without some dramatic effect. But HBO appears to at least embrace the idea that you don’t have to completely butcher the truth to have good fiction. The axiom of “If you can’t be good, be the least bad you can be”.