Sunday, 8 July 2007

Tudor Mania-Hollywood's Latest Cash Grab by Carmody Wilson

Hollywood has once again gone Tudor crazy, and the poor, film-going masses are lapping it up.With two-big-budget features in the works for release late this year and an on-going cable television series, would it be any wonder that by this time next year the fever for the Tudors would have petered out? Or Henry’d out? Or Anne’d out? Maybe so, and to add to the historical hodge-podge, there is an incestuous intermingling of actors, writers, themes, and characters involved in each production, lending weight to the notion that jumping on the Tudor train could be a life-long journey.

The first and most credibly anticipated project out of the gates is The Golden Age, the cinematic follow-up to 1998’s Elizabeth. Directed by Elizabeth’s Shekhar Kapur and starring Cate Blanchett and Clive Owen, the film purports to follow the rather intense relationship between the Queen and her favorite explorer, Sir Walter Raleigh. The Mary, Queen of Scots story is included, with Samantha Morton playing the imprisoned monarch. Much is suspected by me, but nothing proved can be that there will be some bustier-popping and some kind of tearful confession of treachery, a la Joseph Fiennes’ Leicester from the first film, which ultimately ends in the Queen again being alone because the scoundrels she loves keep betraying her. Poor Liz! This is all unfounded, of course, but the first film was so grossly inaccurate and overwrought that I can’t help but expect the same from the second. The Golden Age is due to be released in November in the UK, and it would be interesting to see what the public thinks. Elizabeth was largely greeted with cheers and sighs (and an Oscar nomination, for Blanchett) but even the most untried of casual historians shook their heads at the liberties taken with the glittering past. The first film was beautiful to look at, and the best of the cast returns, with Geoffrey Rush back as the wolfish Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth’s favorite spy, so expectations are high. It’s too bad then that the weirdly pouty and sulky Eddie Redmayne, a leftover from ITV’s magnificent Elizabeth I makes an unwelcome appearance in this film as Babington, a Catholic conspirator. But after all, every film about the Tudors needs a sweaty, beady-eyed Catholic (or Protestant, for that matter,) conspirator, so it might as well be the loathsome Redmayne. So long as there is the uber-manly Clive Owen to bash him about, who cares if it’s historically accurate? It won’t be the only fabrication or miscalculation.

This is the chief beef behind the ballyhooing of Showtime’s The Tudors, a series dedicated to the debauchery of the court of Henry VIII. Short, dark-haired and glistening-skinned Jonathan Rhys Meyers plays the historically fair-haired King, with a sagacious Sam Neill as Cardinal Wolsey and a continuously boring Jeremy Northam as Sir Thomas More. Casting atrocities aside, (why not just throw in the Tudorial Towel and cast Tom Cruise?He looks about as much as Henry VIII as any of the others. And for laughs, and cute factor,maybe the little Ronnie, the not dead one, can be Phillip II of Spain?),there have been complaints. The series began airing in early April overseas, and will no doubt make it to a boxed-set-near-you by this time next year, but the cries of outrage have already been heard from across the sea at the flagrant historical inaccuracies and atrocious casting. A press release touts the drama as “a steamy historical soap opera”, which it may well prove to be, but count me out if it ends up being more histrionics than history.

The script, penned by Elizabeth scribe Michael Hirst, centers on the early courtship of Anne Boleyn and the many tempestuous and combustible conquests Henry indulges in while ordering Wolsey to get him divorced from that bothersome Spanish mule, Catherine of Aragon. Critics have complained that there is too much sex and not enough substance, with one even drawing fearful parallels between Henry’s sexual distraction and the inefficacy of the Bush administration. Is The Tudors really so bad that El Bush had to be brought in to make it politically relevant? Yikes. The New York Times complained that The Tudors wasn’t bloody enough, such was its preoccupation with Henry’s sex life, and pointed out that in the first episode there was only one beheading and that the camera panned away for the money shot. This is insanity. Surely a man with a history as bloody (and behead-y) as Henry VIII’s should not shy away from gore. At least its predecessors in quasi-historical smut, like Caligula, starring Elizabeth I’s Helen Mirren, include their fare share of unimaginable brutality at the hands of their capricious lead figures

But we troglodytes in the UK may never know how a giant in our nation’s history fares when tarted up for American television: Showcase doesn’t even allow access to its website to the merely curious outside of the United States. Perhaps this is a smart move, namely, Showcase is wise enough to keep such silliness to itself, particularly in lieu of the fact that 2005’s Elizabeth I was such a critical and commercial hit for ITV that to import a historically shabby sexfest starring an Irishman, of all things, would just be beyond the pale.

The Other Boleyn Girl, due for release in the autumn in the US and in early 2008 for the UK, is directed by Justin Chadwick (Bleak House) and written by Peter Morgan, who also penned The Queen (which, I’m getting tired of saying, starred Helen Mirren,) and the 2003 television mini-series Henry VIII. This film is based upon Philippa Gregory’s novel, and also centres on Anne Boleyn (Natalie Portman), but takes a closer look at sister Mary, played with throaty buxomness, no doubt, by Scarlett Johansson. Another swarthy actor (Eric Bana) portrays the traditionally red-headed king and Kristin Scott Thomas is in it too, adding a bit of pedigree. There have already been grumbles of discontent by scholars and critics that the three main roles have all gone to non-Brits, but the inclusion of everyone’s favorite soporific Tudor actor, Eddie Redmayne may serve to quiet them.

Unfortunately, this is not the first time that Gregory’s novel has been adapted for the screen. There was a 2004 BBC production done, starring Natasha McElhone and Jared Harris, as Mary and Henry, respectively. The story centres on Mary Boleyn, a noblewoman who catches the king’s eye and is convinced to divorce her husband in favour of the amorous monarch. She is then impregnated and summarily dumped in favour of her sister, the bewitching and mysterious Anne. The BBC production received wishy-washy reviews, and some predict, that the large-scale Hollywood production will fare no better, at least with those that know their stuff. David Starkey, the pompous puffball of pontificating presenters, has already argued that Gregory’s novel is so full of holes, improbabilities and outright fabrications that he wonders why she bothered to give sources at the end of the novel. Morgan’s script for the film, which has been leaked on the internet, reveals that teenaged husbands with no sexual proclivities are wimpy and that gentle, misunderstood kings who make love with panache can be tender beneath the tyranny. Oh dear.

But who cares for the fussy details of what actually happened? The Other Boleyn Girl is a novel, not a historical account, and it certainly has its fan base. It won numerous awards from book clubs since its publication in 2002, and those same fans will come to see the film in droves. Yes, millions of girls and women will flock to the theatre to see Johansson being set aside and maligned and then, thinking they know the whole story, will go for coffee afterwards and talk about Eric Bana’s mouth before going home to their flaccid husbands. If this sounds cruel, it isn’t meant to be, it’s just so irritatingly obvious that this is the film’s fate. Tudor-mania, mid-Western style.

So it has been a banner decade for adaptations and original screenplays based on the world’s most famous dysfunctional family, a family that contained more murders, divorces, liaisons, and treasons than anything on daytime television, so it’s no wonder that there is a wealth of enthusiasm for bringing their sixteenth century stories to the screen. What is too bad is that this enthusiasm doesn’t extend to perfecting scripts, careful casting choices and checking for historical accuracy-but if movie-goers don’t care, why should filmmakers? And who am I to judge? I’ll be at the cinema lining up for tickets just like all the other hysterical historical-fiction fans, anticipating swooning and swashbuckling. Hollywood has gone Tudor crazy, but as the saying goes, if ain’t Baroque, don’t fix it.

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