I adore the British series The Tudors, for all its flaws. (And Good Lord do the flaws become apparant the further along you get.) One of those flaws is a very hit-and-miss approach to the female characters. Stand-outs are Maria Doyle-Kennedy (Katherine of Aragon) and Natalie Dormer (Anne Boleyn) from the first two series, which I’ve already mentioned, although probably not in as much detail as they deserved. (My main gripe at the time was the bad portrayal of Mary/Margaret.) For the time being, I’m going to focus on the female characters in the second two seasons, as they appear… the good, bland and WTF?
Joanne King (Jane Boleyn/Lady Rochford)
This the most sympathetic portrayal I’ve seen of Jane Boleyn, whose testimony infamously sent her husband and sister-in-law to the block, as well as her cousin-in-law Katherine Howard. It could have done the same to Anne of Cleves. It’s made apparant that her marriage to George Boleyn is a deeply unhappy one, including marriage-night rape and George’s supposed homosexuality and devotion to Anne. You can kind of understand what drove her to become so bitter that she saw the only way out as testifying against her sister-in-law. It doesn’t excuse her behaviour, but you can understand her bitterness. Conversely, her encouraging Katherine Howard to have an affair is a WTF moment. She was one of the longest-serving courtiers of Henry’s court; she knew better than anyone how badly it could end. I would have liked an explaination as to why she thought that was a good idea.
Sarah Bolger (Princess/Queen Mary)
Sarah Bolger. OMG you guys, SARAH BOLGER! I read somewhere that a lot of the fans who were threatening to leave over the departure of Dormer stayed because of Bolger, and I could totally believe that. Bolger has this presence as Mary that’s possibly the most nuanced and sympathetic ever portrayed. In 500 years. She’s devout in her beliefs, but not the intolerant woman who became known as ‘Bloody Mary’. She believes that people can believe what they want to, but that they, as the royal family, have a moral obligation to follow the ‘right path’ by example. She’s devoted to her sister Elizabeth and brother Edward, despite them not being of her beliefs. She struggles to walk the line between following her beliefs and trying to keep her father’s love; she acts the pants off Jonathan Rhys-Meyers in every scene.
Annabelle Wallis (Jane Seymour)
I found Jane to be very bland. Yes, I get that she was the ‘sweet, loving’ one after ‘ambitious bitch/slut’ Anne, but she just came across as bland. At one point, when she finds out that Henry is cheating on her, she not only lets it go but in her advanced pregnancy asks his mistress to comfort him should she die in childbirth. Yeah, I totally get that Jane understands she can’t rock the boat – look where Anne and her temper got her – but I can’t believe she would be that understanding. And the shame of it? I could totally see her confiding in her step-daughter Mary, who she had an excellent relationship with both on-screen and according to history. Who better than Mary knew what it was to be a woman trying to negotiate Henry’s love in his sea of temper and whims? Who better than Mary to say ‘you have my deepest sympathy, but look where complaining got my mother and Anne’, and know what she was talking about?
Joss Stone and Tamzin Merchant (Anne of Cleves and Katherine Howard)
I’m mentioning these two only because I was disappointed by the amount of screentime and storyline they got. I didn’t feel they delved into Anne of Cleves at all, and Katherine Howard is the same old simple-minded girl of questionable virtue that history has always portrayed her as. And while it’s true that she requested a block to ‘practice’ her beheading on, did they really have to have Merchant naked? One thing I did like? When Henry is searching for a new bride following Jane Seymour’s death he finds the royal princesses of Europe reluctant to have anything to do with him. At this point, after all, he’s beheaded one wife, abandoned another and left the third to die in childbirth. Who gives a toss that the guy’s King of England when your neck is literally on the line? Though I would have liked to see them go into why Anne married him, and why she chose to stay in England after the divorce: between the two of them, she preferred Henry over her brother’s tyranny. The only reason Henry found a foreign bride was that her home life was intolerable. It would have been nice to see this disintegration of Henry’s personality rather than Rhys-Meyers attempt to make him more sympathetic and attractive.
Katherine Parr (Joley Richardson)
Incidentally, I got a chuckle out of the fact that Richardson is actually far too old to play Katherine Parr, both historically and proportionally to Rhys-Meyers, and I was reserved about her casting. But I really liked her portrayal. I liked the way, when Henry first starts paying her attention, she’s understandably frightened; the man has been married five times before, abandoning two wives, beheading another two and leaving the other to die in childbirth. But the men in her life just don’t grasp this; her elderly, sick husband is convinced that she deliberately invited his interest in the hope of becoming a royal mistress or even wife, and refuses deathbed forgiveness. Her friend – and later last husband – Thomas Seymour doesn’t understand why she doesn’t want to be Queen. (Er… because he’s abandoned two wives, beheaded two and left the other to die in childbirth, that’s why.) There’s one scene when Henry has the papers for her arrest based on her being a heretic; thinking on her feet, she tells him that she was merely playing Devil’s advocate, debating religion with him to distract him from the pain in his leg. As I said before, I would have liked to see more of Henry’s tyranny in the later years of his wife. It would have made for far more interesting portrayals if we had have seen how much terror and uncertainty these women were living in.
Emma Stansfield (Anne Askew)
OK, very small appearance, but I still liked that Anne Askew got a mention. Female martyrs so infrequently get mentioned. And I liked the loyalty Katherine Parr demonstrated in easing her agony in death. Askew was the only woman to be tortured in the Tower of London, a nice detail added to demonstrate Henry’s increasing disregard for both law and historical convention.
Ironically, I think the weakest link in the last two seasons of The Tudors was Rhys-Meyers himself. Rather than the fat, aging King in constant pain who became increasingly paranoid and vicious and all-encompassing in eliminating anyone he saw as a threat, the only consession they made was a bit of grey hair and the odd display of temper. Rhys-Meyers is 34 to Henry’s 56 when he died; he’s far too young and good-looking to be a convincing Henry. He’s also a mere 14 years older than Sarah Bolger. While it’s oddly amusing to have a male character cast younger and better-looking then they’re meant to be, I think it would have made for far more interesting viewing had we seen the constant uncertainty and terror that Jane, Mary, Anne of Cleves and Katherines Howard and Parr went through, trying to balance an increasingly narrow and high tightrope of Henry’s temper and paranoia in an age where men, especially Kings, were all-powerful and the only concessions women had were the whims and mercy of these men.