Monday, January 10, 2011

Review: The Tudors "Death of a Monarchy"

Non Spoiler Review:
Death of a Monarchy concludes the epic journey of The Tudors. The final episode wraps up the lingering plotlines of religious division, Catherine's travails at the hands of Gardiner, and the death of a major character. All of this is framed within the more intimate moments of Henry's reflections on his life as he comes to terms with his mortality.

Before writing this review, I rewatched the entire series on DVD, which I highly recommend now that it's complete. The many characters and plotlines are done a better service when viewed again without the long gaps between seasons.

Death of a Monarchy was beautifully shot, powerful and emotional, and a fitting end to the series. The storylines conclude in a satisfying manner, politically and personally setting the remaining characters on their future paths—particularly Mary, Elizabeth, Catherine and Hartford. The whole episode is weighed by the sense of weariness and death that permeates the scenes and the noticeably aged characters (from the increasingly infirm Charles and Henry, to the autumn leaves blowing among the palace gardens).

The quiet moments with Henry's reflections are poetic, including one dream sequence with the Grim Reaper that provides an iconic image. We get prophetic visions of his dead wives, which may be a bit of a conceit on the part of the director, but it's great to see these actresses again one last time.

Also of note is Trevor Morris' score—with an epic riff on The Tudors title theme, as well as some weighty compositions for the dream sequences. This was a fantastic and satisfying conclusion that should make any fan of the series happy.

Spoilers Now!
This final episode begins with Henry's musings on life and that one thing that can never be recovered—time. He and Charles are both reflecting on their mortality while political machinations continue in court on what the future will hold for the kingdom upon their deaths.

The Admiral of France arrives to sign the new peace treaty and is greeted by an older (and newly cast) Edward, as well as the entire Tudor clan and Queen Catherine. Mary continues to scheme with Gardiner, lamenting Lord Hartford's ever growing influence with the king. But Gardiner suggests the people would support Mary as queen rather than a mere child (and one being raised as a protestant). And on the subject of Catherine, he is preparing his arrest warrant.

Henry greets the admiral and is happy to be done with the Emperor and his betrayals. He abruptly suggests, given his own reformation of the English church, that they abolish communion in both England and France and replace it with a simple mass. The shocked Admiral stammers that he cannot negotiate such terms, and announces King Francis is on his deathbed.

A loyal subject of the queen intercepts the arrest warrant and advises her of it beforehand. Henry hears her crying from his quarters, and goes to see her. This appears to be all for show for Catherine, who is petrified at his intentions. She suggests he has grown displeased with her. He appears confused at that, wondering what reason he would have to be. After he leaves, she orders her ladies to clear the quarters of any books, and they will nolonger discuss religious matters.

Lord Hartford comes to visit a very weary-looking Charles, who has fallen ill. The two discuss the ongoing state of affairs between the Seymours and the Gardiner faction. Edward is concerned over the succession given the youth of his nephew. Charles carries great influence whether he likes it or not, but few know that his wife, the duchess, as well as Lady Hartford and the queen share the same religious affiliations. Charles is not of the same mind, however (a closet Catholic at heart), but they have an amicable discussion. Charles is quite weary of all the religious strife and longs for the older, merrier days of England. Though he does not overtly support Hartford, he will not interfere in how things turn out.

Lady Hartford is summoned before Gardiner, who confidently demands to know the truth of her relationship with Anne Askew. Hartford is unrepentant. She knows his secret—that he has the fortunes of two monasteries that should have gone to the king, and advises him to tear up the warrant. Gardiner has been checkmated.

The king entertains several of his advisers as the queen is summoned before him to resolve him of certain doubts. Catherine sits before them to acknowledge she may have spoken out of turn on religious matters in his presence, but she did so only to engage him in debate and take his mind off his infirmities. She acknowledges she is but a woman and yields to his wisdom, apologising if she spoke out of turn. With that, they have made amends, though Henry appears suspicious that she might be telling him what he wants to hear. Regardless, he declares them perfect friends again.

After she leaves, his groom questions if he should cancel the arrest warrant, and Henry appears surprised at the suggestion. When the lord chancellor comes to arrest the queen the next day, Henry puts on a spectacle in front of her, appearing surprised, then shouting and sending him and the guards away in her defence. Catherine can barely contain her terror at both the arrest and Henry's completely erratic behaviour. He assures her all will be well, but she knows he's playing some sort of game with her (or worse, completely mad).

The lord chancellor confides in Gardiner about what happened, and both remain confused trying to interpret the king's wishes. But Gardiner won't give up.

At the privy council, an argument erupts over the provisions for Prince Edward. Lord Hartford is upset that they are bringing up these matters he thought settled. Gardiner disputes Hartford's legitimacy and implies he's a heretic, receiving a punch in the face as Seymour storms out.

Gardiner then goes to see the king, but Henry abruptly bans Gardiner from court, almost at a whim. He calls him a troublemaker, and never wants to see him again. Gardiner leaves court in shame. With that, the chancellor makes amends with Lord Hartford, who is clearly in the king's favor now.

Henry commissions Holbein for another portrait. As he sits for him, he has a vision of Catherine of Aragon and Mary. Catherine chides him for abandoning her daughter, leaving her unmarried and childless. She is still his wife in God's eyes, she says, leaving a tortured Henry to contemplate all he's done to her. 

Facing his mortality as his fever worsens, Charles confesses how happy he's been in these last years with Brigitte. But upon hearing of his infirmity, Henry summons him to court against Brigitte's protests. A feverish Charles comes to see his old friend, and the two reminisce about the old days of their youth and those they've lost, including Princess Margaret.

This is, perhaps, the most poignant and bittersweet exchange—Henry tells Charles he is the one man he could always trust. The friendship of these two characters has bound the series since the beginning. Henry declares his divine power as God's vicar will heal his friend, but in the next scene we see Charles has passed, and at the funeral, Brigitte is shunned by the cold duchess and Charles' son. She walks away.

Holbein's first attempt at a portrait falls far short of Henry's expectations, painting him as an old man. Henry then has his second vision—Anne and young Elizabeth. Anne regrets neglecting her daughter while she was still alive. Elizabeth is much like her mother, but not intemperate. Henry confesses that he is so very proud of his wise daughter, but she reminds him of Anne from time to time. Anne professes her innocence, and like poor Catherine Howard who lies next to her grave, they were two moths drawn to the flame.

Henry summons Catherine, Mary and Elizabeth to tell them he's sending them away and will not be spending Christmas with them now or ever again. He asks a disconsolate Mary to look after Edward. To Catherine he grants a wealthy endowment and freedom to remarry on his death. Mary is heartbroken at being left an orphan, while stoic Elizabeth walks off without a word after he leaves.

Alone, Henry has his final vision of Jane, asking of her son's well being. She declares Edward will die young from being locked away from the world. His father has killed him. A horrified Henry weeps.

Henry declares that Edward Seymour shall be lord protector while Edward is in his minority. Again, the Seymours have succeeded in securing their place in the power structure. Henry shall be buried next to his true love Jane. And with that, the king's political affairs are concluded.

Henry spends his last days in seclusion while Holbein finishes his portrait. Henry has a final spectacular vision—a youthful Henry standing among a beautiful sky that dissolves to a field of stars, while a horseman, Death, rides up behind. We cut away before he strikes with the sword, thinking that the king may be dead. But not yet.

Henry is summoned to view the completed portrait, and as he looks upon it we get a powerful montage of scenes throughout the series. When we cut to the canvas, we see it is the iconic painting of Henry VIII.

It is well done, and Henry walks away.

And so ends four seasons of The Tudors. A conclusion that delicately manages to keep the audience's empathy for Henry, despite his evolution into the mad and changeable tyrant of his final years. It's obvious that he genuinely loves Catherine, but his machinations to mentally torture her seem to be geared to put her in her place (as the good wife he's always wanted) rather than do her actual harm. His final moments with his family show the true love he feels despite his changeable disposition to them throughout the series.

There is little to criticize. Some may be upset about Henry's offscreen death, but that would have served very little. What we did get was a requiem with the mothers of his children, and his sins brought back to stare him in the face.

We got many good-byes—Charles' especially touching death, given he was so much the heart of this series, as well as Mary and Elizabeth's contrasting reactions to their departing father. The weight of Mary and Elizabeth's future enmity and ultimate fates always figure in the background. And Catherine, so craftily portrayed these last few episodes, leaves us wondering if she does love the king, or has simply managed to excel at her role as queen and wife. Whatever the case, she is rewarded for her loyalty and sacrifice, and like so few of these historical characters, has a happy ending.

Historical series such as this have their work cut out for them—creating living characters out of books and records, a cohesive storyline that fits the pace of a television series, and bringing it all to life dramatically and believably. With a few hiccups along the way, The Tudors succeeded in recreating the 16th Century culture, showing the important political and religious changes that had such ramifications on the modern world.

The cast excelled, most notably Jonathan Rhys Meyers (portraying an increasingly mad and tyrannical ruler) and Henry Cavill (the sombre and weary Charles Brandon who had embodied the free spirit of youth at the beginning), Sarah Bolger (as the tortured and increasingly vindictive Mary), and this season in particular, Joely Richardson (as the intelligent, loving, but calculating reformer Catherine Parr).

Like Henry's painting, The Tudors is well done. It has sparked in me a greater interest in the time period, and will be missed. But it will always be around for a rewatch on DVD—an epic Medieval television experience, beginning with an appetizer of 2010's miniseries, The Pillars of the Earth, followed by four seasons of The Tudors, and ending with Cate Blanchett's Elizabeth and Elizabeth: the Golden Age.

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