The other Tudors

September 4, 2008

A look at three depictions of Britain in the age of King Henry VIII--with varying results.

ON PAPER, The Other Boleyn Girl had everything going for it: a stellar cast, including Scarlett Johansson, Natalie Portman and Eric Bana; Justin Chadwick, who was behind the brilliant recent television dramatization of Dickens' Bleak House, as director; gorgeous sets; classy cinematography; and a story taken from a pivotal moment in history, featuring plenty of intrigue, sex and violence.

So how did it manage to be so dull?

Showtime's The Tudors, currently in its second season, has covered the same material, also with a remarkable cast (Jonathan Rhys Meyers as a skinny Henry, Natalie Dormer as a pouting Anne Boleyn, Jeremy Northam as Thomas Moore, Sam Neill as Cardinal Woolsey, and Peter O'Toole as the pope!) and plenty of creative talent.

While this version isn't as boring as the film, it is enjoyable in the way of any fast-paced soap opera--featuring pretty people having sex and intrigue in pretty places, and it has all the emotional depth of a Twinkie.

The story of Henry VIII is one that television and cinema have returned to repeatedly, often adapting literary works, and each time, as much--and often more--is revealed about the period of production than of the Tudor era itself.

In the 1960s, A Man for All Seasons (based on Robert Bolt's play) presented Thomas More as the man of conscience holding out against an establishment mired in dishonesty and cynical self-interest. In the 1970s, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (Alison Weir's novel) focused on the subordinate role of women in the 16th century.

Although rising absolutism, clashing empires and corrupt rulers doubtless have their resonance, I'm not sure what these latest versions say about our own era. But certainly, they tell us very little about the past.

While superficial historical accuracy ranges from abysmal (The Tudors never lets the facts get in the way) to awful (as Manohla Dargis of the New York Times says of The Other Boleyn Girl, "the girls were more or less the Paris and Nicky Hilton of the Tudor court"), the overarching anachronism is in the relentless dual drive to sanitize the era and to reduce the socio-historical to personal and, more often than not, erotic motivations.

So one of the most momentous historical shifts of the modern world is paraphrased as "obsession can change the world." Henry broke with the Catholic Church because he wanted to have sex with Anne Boleyn. She was in the court because her father and uncle were ambitious, and anyway, she's a manipulative doxy. Along the way we get individuals who are "just like us" (except prettier, better dressed and less ethical), and thereby we get no sense of what is specific and different, and therefore interesting, about the age that is ostensibly at the heart of the action.

A RADICALLY different approach can be seen in the Matthew Shardlake mysteries of British historian and novelist (and one-time lawyer for the poor) C.J. Sansom. Shardlake is a London lawyer working under Thomas Cromwell (who was the major figurehead of the English Reformation until the king had him executed in 1540.)

In the first novel, Dissolution, Shardlake is sent to the Monastery of Scarnsea to investigate the mysterious death of a king's agent; what follows is a satisfying combination of the mystery genre with a compelling historical drama.

Shardlake's England bares no resemblance to the lavishly attractive locations of The Tudors. London is a place of "stink and din," and a typical domestic interior is "dingy, the fireplace black with dirt and stains of rats' piss on the whitewashed ceiling." Swamps reeking of raw sewage surround the Scarnsea monastery.

The people, too, are far removed from the usual universally buff, groomed and elegant cast of characters: in an age where washing was considered irreligious ("cleanliness is next to Godliness" was not popularized until the late 18th century), the monks emit a particularly foul stench, and in city and court alike, nosegays and pomanders are popular accessories to combat the fetid air.

Not only does Sansom forego prettification, he also avoids the presentism (the practice of projecting contemporary ideology on to past eras) of so many period pieces, instead allowing us to imagine a world unlike our own. Despising the debauched monks living in luxury paid for by tithes from the peasantry, Shardlake is a reformer, and initially supports the dissolution of the monasteries.

In Dark Fire, he is progressively sickened by the corruption and brutality of the court, the appropriation of church property by the "courtiers and other greedy men of spoil," and such practices as giving pensions to the friars and monks, while throwing the monasteries' servants out on the streets empty-handed.

Many of those would end up like the destitute gathering daily around St Paul's: "As usual the cathedral precincts were full of beggars--adults and children leaning against the walls, thin and ragged, displaying their sores and deformities in the hope of charity."

The fear of God hangs above every action. Committing a crime not only carries the threat of violent punishment, but also of endangering one's soul, risking an eternity of hell after death.

While Shardlake does not come into direct contact with the king, we hear of Henry's religiosity, and understand the impetus for the break with Rome to be more than simply personal (Henry's desire to divorce Katherine of Aragorn and marry Anne Boleyn) and dynastic (in order to produce an heir), but part of a far larger tectonic shift that would ultimately subordinate the church to the state.

For this was an age of transition and change, as the slow spread of market networks encroached on people's lives, the Reformation undermined the ancient rule of the medieval church, and technical and scientific discoveries battled with mysticism and superstition.

In this transitional phase, however, the certainties of feudalism are shaken by a terrifying insecurity, where you could be burned at the stake for being a Papist or a Lutheran, and the monarchy shifted from Catholic to Protestant and back again repeatedly within a single lifetime.

Sansom shows rather than tells all this, allowing us to inhabit the experience of ordinary people caught up in such tumult, through a well-turned description or character study. The final image of Dissolution is of Shardlake talking to Brother Guy, a "Moorish" (of north African descent, converted to Christianity from Islam) doctor who has lost his livelihood, watching Cromwell's workers remove all precious materials from Scarnsea monastery as the first process of its confiscation and blighting.

As the "distant sound of crashing lead" echoes behind them, Shardlake says, "There is no place safe in the world, no thing certain...All is dissolving. All is dissolution."

The BBC has commissioned an adaptation of Dissolution, with the other books in the series likely to follow, starring Kenneth Branagh. It is yet to be seen if this dramatization will avoid the pitfalls of other television and cinematic versions of the Tudor age.

I am not sure how Branagh will fare as a "whey-faced hunchback lawyer in black robe and cap." But it is certainly something to watch out for. And meanwhile Sansom's Dissolution, Dark Fire, Sovereign and Revelation are in print, and some are available on audiobook, beautifully read by Simon Jones.

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