Tuesday, March 22, 2005

What I'm renting: Henry VIII

Although I am woefully ignorant of English history, I have always enjoyed their lush costume dramas. The Lion in Winter has always been a favorite movie of mine, and A Man for All Seasons sits on my DVD shelf and is one of a comparatively small fraction of my collection that I’ve actually watched. Meanwhile, although it doesn’t come to mind necessarily when I think of ‘my favorite movies,’ at least once a year I pull down my disc of Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V and give it a watch. It’s much better than Olivier’s version, I think, and is probably my favorite Shakespeare adaptation.

Henry VIII is a recent British TV drama, a three-plus hour dealie revolving around Henry’s notorious marriages. It’s hardly a classic, but it has its moments. And although I suspect the history is not quite up to snuff—an impression borne out by several nit-picking reviews at the IMDB—it wasn’t ludicrous either. In fact, it made me want to watch the purported superior 1971 multi-part Six Wives of Henry VIII. Luckily, the library I work at carries this on video, although I’d prefer it on disc. However, Netflix doesn’t carry it.

The film opens with Henry as a boy, brought in to speak with his dying father. He instructs Henry that his greatest duty as king will be to sire a strong son to carry the throne after he himself is gone. Pretty much the rest of the movie centers on Henry’s increasingly frantic attempts to see this accomplished.

The adult Henry is play by Ray Winstone, who is often over the top, but not so much as to become ridiculous (generally). Of course, Henry isn’t a role that properly calls for much restraint. Henry’s viewed as a problematic character, being a great warrior and a ruthlessly successful king, but also a bit of a dullard who’s obsession with begetting a son allows those around him to lead him by the nose. The irony, though, is that they all gain this power only to lose it, and pretty near half the cast is executed at one point or the other. So many people are led to the chopping block (and those are the lucky ones, as the rest were burned at the stake) that the film at times would veer dangerously close to black comedy if not for this fact that this all pretty much really happened.

The show appears in two halves, each anchored by a name actor. Helena Bonham Carter gets the juiciest of the wife roles, as the conniving Anne Boleyn. Like most everyone else, she out-connives herself. By denying Henry her body, she prompts him to the extremes of breaking with the Catholic Church so that he can divorce his first wife and marry her. The frustrated and perpetually yearning Henry’s round face is kept flushed and reddened during all this, and one can almost see the phrase “looking like an erect penis” in the script.

However, Anne quickly makes a fatal error. Wishing to fully consolidate her personal power, she forces Henry while he’s still in her thrall to execute his closest advisor, Cardinal Wolsey. This proves a mistake. As Wolsey had warned her, her own position would become precarious should she also fail to give Henry a son. Wolsey was the smarter politician, and wanted to ally himself with Anne to keep Henry’s impulsive nature in check. By dispatching Wolsey, the final constraint on Henry’s ego was removed, and Anne famously ends up getting a rather low haircut.

In the second half, Sean Bean appears as a rebel leader who threatens civil war following the state depravations against Catholics inaugurated under Henry’s minister Cromwell. Indeed, religious battles occupy much of the politics here, as the Catholics and the Protestants seesaw back and forth in Henry’s favor, depending on who is providing him with his latest bride, and each of who take advantage of their moments of advantage to horribly retaliate against their opponents.

As with Paris taking Helen, Henry is willing to risk everything to obtain whatever woman has caught his recent fancy. This trait is fed also by his power. As King, he can do what he wants. However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a price to be paid. The Church and treaties and inter-marriages with foreign powers and the Law of England itself all lays constraints on the power of even a king, and while they can be shaken off, all hell tends to break loose.

Seldom has biology so truly been destiny. Henry doesn’t shoot blanks, but his legitimate progeny tend to be girls (save for one sickly son), his legitimate sons tend to die in childbirth, and his healthy sons are bastards. Meanwhile, his first wife loses her place because she can’t deliver a male heir, his second loses her head for the same reason, the third dies giving birth, and so on. The most jaw dropping episode is when a young wife of the elderly Henry brings about her own demise because she’s got a case of hot pants. In a way, she’s the closest match for her husband, except that he could (to some extent) get away with his folly, while she couldn’t. Adultery at that time was bad enough. Adultery against the King, however, was High Treason.

In the end, Henry dies, and as we learn in an epilogue, his fragile son died soon after at that age of 15. At this point Henry’s embittered oldest daughter Mary—daughter of the woman he threw over for Anne—gained the throne. A fervent Catholic, she persecuted the Protestants so dreadfully that even in those doleful times she earned the nickname “Bloody Mary.” The crown was then assumed by Henry’s final child, Elizabeth. Ironically, after all of Henry’s efforts to provide a male heir, Elizabeth went on to become one of England’s greatest and most fabled rulers.


At 4:56 PM, Blogger Henry Brennan said...

The 1971 version of "The Six Wives of Henry VII" was the better production. Keith Mitchell was astounding. However, I also recommend "Elizabeth R" which came out around the same time. Glenda Jackson is a must see and the writing, in my opinion, was even better than "Six Wives" and it's available at Netflix.

At 7:02 AM, Blogger Ken Begg said...

Cool. Yesterday I went to the library shelves to get the first volume of the Six Wives videos (and was annoyed to see that the Anne Boleyn chapter, the second one, appears to have scampered off--I'll have to interlibrary loan it), and next to it was the Elizabeth R series. So I was ahead of you, but only by accident, so please keep the suggestions coming.

On a not entirely related note, I'm so annoyed that the BBC dvds of their complete Shakespeare series are priced at a hundred bucks a shot and more. OK, not everything would sell well at 'sell through' prices. Still...MacBeth, Hamlet, Julius Caesar, Romeo & Juliet, Richard III, King Lear, Henry V, etc. and so on...these would sell extremely well I think.


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