Written by Peter Morgan and directed by Pete Travis, this two-part drama was originally aired in England in 2003. I picked this up on DVD a few years ago, as King Henry VIII has long been one of the most interesting historical figures that I’ve ever read about. Each part is a little over 2 hours. Part I begins with young Henry VIII (played by Sid Mitchell) being summoned to see his father, King Henry VII (Joss Ackland), who is on his deathbed. Just before he dies, the King implores his son that to be a truly great king he must “secure the family line” by having a son of his own. Then he drops dead, and everyone in the room kneels before young Henry, the new king.
Then the film jumps forward 15 years, revealing that Henry (now played by Ray Winstoen) has successfully ruled England and is very popular, and is happily married to Katherine of Aragon (Assumpta Serna), but still does not have a son. Well, he doesn’t have a legitimate son, because we soon see that Henry has been informed that one of his mistresses has just given birth to his son, which Henry VIII happily celebrates. He rushes to the side of his most loyal servant, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey (David Suchet) to share the “good” news, and also suggests that Wolsey officially legitimizes Henry’s new son, whom he names Henry Fitzroy, and names him as Henry’s heir, but Wolsey convinces Henry that it would be too risky politically and that he should continue trying to have a legitimate son with the queen. What follows is a rather touching moment, as Henry and Katherine prepare to make love in their bedroom, and we see Katherine’s sadness that she has been unable to have a healthy son, and blames herself for the series of miscarriages and stillbirths she’s had in the past 15 years, which has left her and Henry with just one child, a daughter named Mary. While there doesn’t seem to be much passion between Henry and Katherine at this point, there is clearly still some love between them, as Henry insists that he has been happy with her all these years.
Then we’re introduced to the Boleyn family, as they celebrate the engagement of daughter Anne (played by Helen Bonham Carter) to her fiancé, Lord Henry Percy (Scott Handy). However, when Anne and Percy arrive at the castle to get King Henry’s permission for the marriage (apparently, this is something members of “Noble” families had to do back then), Anne catches the King’s eye, and he conspires to have her for himself. He instructs Wolsey to forbid the marriage and then has Anne brought, against her will, to be one of Katherine’s Ladies In Waiting. He then proceeds to begin a rather awkward courtship of Anne, practically right under Katherine’s nose, by writing her sappy love letters and sending her gifts. Anne initially rejects the King’s affections but, after learning that her former love Lord Percy has married someone else, and at the urging of her family (particularly her scheming uncle, Thomas Howard, The Duke of Norfolk, played by Mark Strong), becomes more receptive to the King. However, she refuses to sleep with him and become his mistress, holding out for the possibility of becoming his wife.
The rest of part one covers the well-known history of King Henry’s unsuccessful attempt to get the Pope to annul his marriage to Katherine, which lead to the downfall of Cardinal Wolsey, because of his inability to secure the Pope’s permission. And then Henry’s break from the Catholic Church, at the urging of Thomas Cromwell, who helps him establish an independent Church of England, which Henry controls. Katherine is banned from court, eventually dying alone of heartbreak. Henry and Anne marry and she quickly gets pregnant, but their joy turns to disappointment as Anne gives birth to a girl, Elizabeth, instead of the son she and Henry so desperately wanted. Henry becomes distant towards Anne, as she becomes suspicious of Henry’s behavior, thinking he is cheating on her, and they get into constant arguments. At one point, after Anne complains about his lack of attention to her, Henry forcefully rapes her, in a very uncomfortable scene. Anne gets pregnant again but miscarries a son. Henry now wants to get rid of her and charges Cromwell with finding a way to do it. Cromwell has Anne arrested on trumped-up charges of adultery and she is found guilty and executed. Henry is out riding a horse when he hears the cannon fired, which signifies the death of Anne, and gets a look of horror on his face and says to himself “What have I done?”
The film could have ended there I’d already be satisfied. Great performances all around. Serra plays Katherine of Aragon with such grace, you could believe she really was a queen. Stand-out scenes for her are when Henry informs her that he wants to end their marriage, and then when she is put on trial in court, and pleads with Henry not to go through with this. I also admire Suchet’s portrayal of Wolsey, and how he goes from having the King’s absolute trust, to slowly seeing his influence fall as Henry becomes more and more infatuated with Anne, until he has completely fallen out of favor with the King. And Helen Bonham Carter is one of the best actresses to play Anne Boleyn (I’d put her 2nd only to Natalie Dormer in “The Tudors”). She goes from innocent, to calculated and seductive, to paranoid and scared, and then finally resigned to her fate, in the course of this film. Her defiant posture when she is put on trial is very convincing.
It’s understandable that the film would focus half it’s time on this period of King Henry VIII’s life, as it is the most famous story. But that means that part 2 has a lot more ground to cover. Henry marries Jane Seymour (Emilia Fox), who soon gets pregnant. Then he has to deal with an uprising, lead by Sir Robert Aske (Sean Bean), who has raised an army of English Catholics who are upset at Henry and Cromwell’s dissolution of Catholic churches and monasteries, as they attempt to firmly establish the Church of England. Using deception, Henry is able to trick Aske into disarming his men, who Henry then has arrested and executed, including Aske. Seymour gives birth to a son, named Edward, but then dies of infection soon afterward, which throws Henry into a great depression. Cromwell then convinces Henry to marry Anne of Cleves (played very briefly by Pia Girard), but Henry finds her displeasing when he meets her, and refuses to sleep with her. This leads to Cromwell’s downfall, and he is arrested and then beheaded in a brutal execution (the executioner misses the first two times, striking Cromwell in the back, before finally chopping off his head). Henry divorces Anne of Cleves and then Thomas Howard conspires to have his young niece Catherine Howard (played by Emily Blunt, in her first film role) introduced to the King, who quickly becomes infatuated with her and marries her.
By now, Henry has become quite overweight and is therefore unable to perform sexually with Catherine on their wedding night, but she assures him that it is okay. However, soon bored with the King’s lack of ability, Catherine begins a dangerous affair with the King’s favorite courtier Thomas Culpepper (Joseph Morgan) and when this is discovered, they are both arrested and executed. Henry then meets and marries Catherine Parr (Clare Holman), which is portrayed as more of a marriage of convenience than of passion (the King is just lonely), and then Henry finally dies, in a deathbed scene that is similar to the opening of this film, as he meets with his son Edward, and implores him to be a successful MAN, so that he can be a successful King. The film ends with Henry’s funeral, and a narration that tells what happened to all of the surviving characters, including the short reigns of Edward and Mary, and then the long successful reign of Elizabeth.
Because of the longer time-period that must be covered in part 2, many events were given the short drift, in my opinion. We don’t get as much insight into the last 4 wives as we do of Anne Boleyn and Katherine of Aragon. Girard is given no lines at all as Anne of Cleves and is actually only seen in person during Henry’s funeral at the end. We get a little bit more from Jane Seymour, as we see her attempt to help Henry reconcile with his daughter Mary (Lara Belmont), and then we see her react in horror when she finds out what Henry did to Robert Aske and his men, but then she’s dead soon after. We see a lot more of her two brothers, Thomas and Edward (William Houston and Thomas Lockyer), who use their position in order to gain influence with the King, and over their nephew, the future King. It is through Edward that Henry meets Catherine Parr, as Edward was romantically interested in her first, but Thomas convinces him to let the King marry her, so they can stay on the King’s good side. One of the best roles in part two is Mark Strong, who plays Thomas Howard with suitable sleaziness. When he first gets the idea of using his niece to seduce the King, we see him rush to see her late at night, and then forces her to disrobe in front of him, so he can inspect her nude body (keep in mind, she’s supposed to be only 15 years old at that time). He then cynically cuts her loose when her adultery is discovered, just as he dropped all communication with his other niece Anne when she was put on trial.
But the biggest credit goes to Ray Winston, who is absolutely excellent as King Henry VIII. From acting like a lovesick puppy with Anne Boleyn to his devastation at the death of Jane Seymour, the humiliation he feels when he unable to consummate his marriage to young Catherine Howard, and the rage he feels when he learns of her adultery, the man exhibits a wide range of emotions over the course of the film. Also, thanks to the realistic make-up, he convincingly ages and gains weight. The film takes several historical liberties with the facts, that longtime Tudorphiles will easily spot, but it’s barely distracting. Overall, the film does a good job of portraying the life of Henry VIII, and I really enjoyed it.