The king's problem is that he can't sire a son. He manages with his mistresses, but never with a wife, which drives him into fits of rage, as if they are to blame, these women who promise devotion and loyalty and yet betray him in their wombs.

Although made for television, Henry VIII is a film with all the trappings of Shekhar Kapur's Elizabeth, but without the time or money to hang about. This lean, mean approach of shooting twice as many scenes in a day than you might expect works in its favour. There is energy and commitment from the actors and a spirit of innovation from director Pete Travis.

By choosing Ray Winstone to play the king, rather than a more classical actor, is a stroke of genius. You have to get used to his Cockney accent, but whose to say how they talked in the early 1500s? Obvious references to The Sopranos in tights - Winstone's trademark is that of an East End hard man - is lazy stereotyping. Life in the Tudor court may have resembled the Corleones in ways of family feuding and power struggles, but Henry, by the end, was closer to Sadam Hussein in his attitude towards people who looked at him funny.

He appears, not so much a weak man, as a friendless one, desperate for affection, paranoid and suspicious, angry at the inability to control his emotions, or those of others, particularly his wives. He wants adoration from women, and silence. Above all, he wants a son.

Anne Boleyn is too clever for him. She's the original feminist, refusing his advances until she has secured an absolute guarantee of security within the royal household. Her sister had been his mistress for years, bore him two children, before being abandoned to marry a dull farmer.

Henry is surrounded by acolytes and schemers, who flatter him to his face and plot behind his back, especially in connection with the Church. When the king defies Rome because the Pope won't give him a divorce, the Protestants grasp their opportunity to rampage throughout the country, sacking monasteries, not unlike the Chinese in Tibet.

Henry's reign was, indeed, a bloody one and he becomes, reluctantly you feel, a tyrant. He never properly recovers after Anne refuses to have their marriage annulled and, thereby, saving her life, because that would have made the child Elizabeth a bastard. Like Macbeth, he is haunted by the spectre of treacherous acts and his isolation is enhanced by the fear that surrounds him.

With its towering central performance and superlative supporting players - Helena Bonham Carter as Anne, David Suchet as Cardinal Wolsey, Mark Strong as Norfolk, Sean Bean as the popular Yorkshireman Robert Aske, who leads a short lived uprising against the treatment of Catholics after the Dissolution, and Assumpta Serna as the brave, forceful Katherine of Aragon - this is a film that stands head and shoulders above the more sedate historical series, so beloved by stalwarts of television costume drama.

Reviewed on: 23 Nov 2003
Share this with others on...
Henry VIII packshot
The life and bloody times of a fat Tudor king with lots of wives.
Amazon link

Director: Pete Travis

Writer: Peter Morgan

Starring: Ray Winstone, Helena Bonham Carter, David Suchet, Michael Malone, Mark Strong, Emilia Fox, Sean Bean, Daniel Webb, Assumpta Serna, Charles Dance, Emily Blunt, Pia Girard, Clare Holman

Year: 2003

Runtime: 250 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: UK


Search database:

If you like this, try: