Reviewer: Charity Bishop
Two hours shorter than the previous installments and suffering from the absence of many of the actors that made the first two seasons phenomenal, The Tudors' third year is somewhat rushed but does allow us to meet and come to know many faces from history that have been left much unexplored in cinema.
England's former queen has been no more buried than its monarch chooses to marry for the third time, in this instance to the mild-mannered Jane Seymour (Annabelle Wallis). Warned against speaking too loudly in favor of her faith but determined to reintroduce Henry's two daughters at court, Jane proves a stabilizing influence on the older and more ill-content Henry (Jonathan Rhys Meyers). Theirs is a relationship of affection but not passion and it is his hope that Jane will soon provide him with a much desired heir. Also new to court is the notorious Sir Frances Bryan (Alan Van Sprang), a man of philandering interests whom the king finds useful when it comes to hunting down and silencing potential adversaries for the throne. Foremost in the thoughts of those who would see the "heretic king" overturned is Reginald Pole, a Plantagenet with a right to the throne. A minister within the church, he has sought refuge in Rome from the agonies being suffered on his faith in England.
The continued persecution of monks and priests by Secretary Cromwell (James Frain) and the disillusionment of the monasteries has arisen outrage among the northern Catholics, who choose to unite in order to demand the restoration of their churches and the right to worship as they choose. Their silent and careful champion is Lady Mary (Sarah Bolger), who has been restored with Jane's influence to the court but maintains a careful distance from politics and instead prays for an advantageous marriage. The unlikely leader of the rebellion is Robert Aske (Gerard McSorley), a patriot who hopes the king will be more lenient than he fears. But Henry will not stand for anyone who defies his authority and unleashes a brutal slaughter in the north that resonates through history as the series unfolds. It covers a tremendous amount of material in a very short amount of time and in some respects I fear that may be the cause of certain of its weaknesses. For those unfamiliar with the history of the period, the episodes surrounding the uprising and Pilgrimage of Grace will be at best confusing and at worst, tedious and uninteresting.
Historically, this season stays relatively close to the truth but omits some historical figures and substitutes others. However, it does touch on three of the wives. Anne of Cleves (Joss Stone) enters in the seventh episode before we get a glimpse of Katherine Howard in the season finale. Its biggest problem is a lack of development for new characters. The writer has been clever in planning "replacements" for individuals who perished last season but in some instances it works better than others. Lady Mary has been wonderfully written and made me miss Katharine of Aragon a little bit less, while Robert Aske steps into the shoes of Thomas More. I felt a great deal of time was wasted on Lady Ursula and her relationship with the king and Sir Frances that might have been better spent showing us more of the royal children. Some of the best acting comes from Sarah Bolger, whose Mary is outstanding. Annabelle Wallis is also a wonderful Jane Seymour and her departure from the series is one of the most touching, heart-wrenching episodes ever depicted in the series. I will say though that the truly outstanding performance this season came from James Frain. His depiction of the downfall and defeat of Cromwell was as impacting and gut-wrenching as the death of Sir Thomas More last season.
Secular critics have two complaints about the third season -- that it is somewhat hard to follow (that I agree with since the entire Pilgrimage of Grace begins and ends in only three episodes) and that it's not as sexy as former seasons. True, the mangled Henry (suffering from a leg injury) is not nearly the womanizer he used to be -- but that doesn't mean there aren't infrequent but graphic scenes. Most of them are between Sir Frances and his various mistresses (third and forth episodes), but in the sixth episode, Henry has an explicit scene with Ursula that leaves nothing to the imagination. Oddly enough, there is no nudity or sexual contact between Henry and Jane, but nudity on some of the other leading ladies (first, third, fifth, and eighth episodes). There are various crudities and innuendos, two uncomfortable "failed consummation" scenes, several harsh abuses of Jesus' name, and one f-word. The violence is not as explicit this season but there is a torture scene in which it is implied a man gets a hot poker up his backside, a long shot of freshly severed heads on pikes, and the camera pans out across a field in which hundreds of women and children are shown hanging. There are several scenes of hanging, and one botched beheading (thankfully, off-camera).
One of the aspects of the show I appreciated this season was that the former queens have not been forgotten. Katharine of Aragon in particular has quite a wonderful reputation. Henry admits that she was his first great love, and Mary is convinced her mother is watching over her. She and Jane share a particularly sweet moment together in which Jane gives her a cross that once belonged to Katharine. Although scenes with the children were sadly infrequent, one in particular is certain to make you smile, in which Elizabeth and Mary discuss their baby brother and Elizabeth states with authority that she doesn't believe boys are more important than girls. The show's creator, Michal Hirst, penned the Elizabeth franchise and it is delightful to see his younger depiction of England's most popular monarch. I appreciate that for once, Mary has been shown in a more positive light, and hope in the fourth season we see much more of her.