Return of the Tudors

By Eileen Murphy

Long before the Windsors became tabloid fodder for their lively personal dramas, the world was fascinated by the travails of another set of British royals: the highly dysfunctional Tudor dynasty. This month, the cable network Showtime returns with the fourth and final season of their sexy, violent and utterly engrossing series, “The Tudors,” filmed in Ireland and starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers as the headstrong monarch, Henry VIII, who changed wives with alarming frequency.

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The season picks up the story with Henry, finally rid of the despised Anne of Cleves (played by singer Joss Stone), marrying the beautiful but empty-headed young Katherine Howard (Tamzin Merchant). His daughter Mary Tudor (the luminous Sara Bolger, all grown up since she appeared in Jim Sheridan’s “In America”) makes no attemnpt to hide her dislike of her new stepmother, a close relation of the late, hated Anne Boleyn. Scottish actor David O’Hara drops in this season to play the Earl of Surrey, the new queen’s uncle.

Henry has reached middle age, and suffers from chronic pain: both physical (his badly ulcerated leg) and psychological: he’s getting old, he wants to be in love, and he is desperate to secure his succession, and longs for another son as a surety against disaster befalling Price Edward. On the political front, Henry’s headaches include the French and their designs on the English territory of Calais; the Scots, whose King James is Henry’s first cousin and nemesis; and the north, where the rebellion in Yorkshire and the surrounding villages remains a recent, and rancid, memory. At court, the Seymour faction, headed by Edward and Thomas, holds sway thanks to family ties: they are uncles of the king’s only son. The palace is rife with political intrigue, illicit sex, guilt and secrets.

Writer / producer Michael Hirst has created a fascinating world in “The Tudors” - in large part because he has chucked any of the historical details he felt would slow things down. The characters speak in a satisfying mix of period and modern dialog, which means no “thee” or “thou,” plenty of “Your Grace” and “My Lady,” and the occasional F-bomb. The cast is almost uniformly young, sexy and good-looking — imagine doing “Little Women” with Victoria’s Secret models — but that’s part of the fun. I mean, I’ve always admired Sir Thomas More and his his principled, if stubborn, refusal to take the Oath of Loyalty, but now that I picture him in the person of the dreamy Jeremy Northam, I REALLY admire him . . . if only he hadn’t lost his head in Season Two. Sir Thomas, that is — not Jeremy.

Rhys Meyers - a slim, dark-haired Corkman — gives a standout performance as Henry VIII, and completely owns the part - even though Henry was, in reality, a big, bluff, redheaded Welshman. Also giving terrific performances are Merchant (as the only occasionally-dressed Katherine), and the hunky Henry Cavill, who plays the king’s closest friend and brother-in-law Charles Brandon. If you have Showtime, don’t miss this (though I’d suggest using the On-Demand to catch up on the earlier seasons first); if you don’t have Showtime, make friends with someone who does.

The Tudors in on Showtime, Sundays at 9 p.m. Check listings for rebroadcast dates and times.