Thursday, March 29, 2007

‘The Tudors,” Showtime’s new miniseries, is insouciant about history, sometimes anachronistic and seems to have been created simply to give HBO a run for its money.

It’s also completely addictive.

The 10-part series, which cost $42 million to make, premieres on the cable channel Sunday night at 10. It aims at nothing less than making us rethink an icon.

We’re all familiar with the fat, pompous Henry VIII from Hans Holbein’s famous portrait. “The Tudors” offers us something rather different: The attractive, magnetic young king he was before that.

Producers have found just the man for the part in Irish actor Jonathan Rhys Meyers (Woody Allen’s “Match Point,” CBS’ miniseries “Elvis”): He’s intelligent, sexy, decisive, headstrong but not out of control. What more could you want in a king?

The very first scenes establish the tone of “The Tudors.” “We meet to consider questions of great moment,” Henry tells his gathered advisers. It’s around 1520, and Henry, not yet 30, has been on the throne for a decade.

The French have murdered England’s ambassador in Urbino — Henry’s own uncle. With his advisers’ agreement, he decides to declare war. But Henry can’t be bothered with the details. He tells Cardinal Thomas Wolsey (Sam Neill, “Jurassic Park”) to arrange matters. “Now,” the king says, “I can go play.”

This recreation involves some very strenuous exercise with a comely blonde. His first words to her after they’ve finished: “How is your husband?”

“The Tudors” has a steamy mix of sex and politics. Comparisons to such HBO series as “The Sopranos” and “Rome” are inevitable. “Tudors” has the same generous helpings of sex and violence — although it’s never off-the-charts graphic — combined with slightly highbrow thematic elements that make viewers feel less guilty about enjoying themselves so much.

Creator, writer and producer Michael Hirst, who wrote the script for “Elizabeth,” the feature film that starred Cate Blanchett as Henry’s daughter, says in the press notes that Showtime asked him how accurate “The Tudors” was and that he guessed, off the top of his head, 85 percent.

It might be lower because “Tudors” is riddled with historical inaccuracies.

For starters, Henry’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon, was only five years older than the king, but she’s played by an actress (Maria Doyle Kennedy of “The Commitments”) 13 years older than Mr. Meyers.

And while Joan Bergin’s costumes are quite stunning — Henry is dressed ostentatiously, with fabrics as elaborate as those of the women — they’re not exactly the sort of thing worn in the Tudor period.

Finally, many historians argue that Henry wasn’t even particularly promiscuous.

But never mind the historical license, the source material is inherently rich in dramatic conflicts. The first is that within Henry himself. He’s an intelligent man, a humanist who struggles to reconcile his ideas with his hope for immortality. He insists, “I intend to be a just ruler. But tell me this: Why is Henry V remembered?” Hint: It was a battle, not a tax break.

Another interesting intellectual battle is waged between Wolsey and Thomas More (Jeremy Northam, “Gosford Park”). The former — the putative man of God — chooses king over God, while the man of the world chooses God over king. Mr. Northam, one of the show’s standouts, imbues his principled character with humanity and a deep sense of unease.

Mr. Hirst is already at work writing season two of “The Tudors.” There’s plenty of material — Henry won’t even have married his second wife by the end of this series, of which critics were sent the first half.

In this sympathetic portrayal of Henry VIII, even the decision to consider annulling his first marriage seems almost defensible. His father, Henry VII, took the throne in battle. The Tudors are a new dynasty, and one that might not last if Henry doesn’t have a male heir. “All my father’s work, finished,” he despairs after a close call with death. “And it’s all my fault.”

Henry VIII, the man who beheaded two wives, a sympathetic figure? Forget about Tony Soprano, the lovable mobster. With “The Tudors,” Showtime has out-HBOed HBO.

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