Thursday, 1 May 2014

The Tudors: Season Two, Episode 10

"I have only a little neck."

What a perfect little piece of television this is; beautifully written and shot. If every other episode of The Tudors were a pile of pants, the whole series would be worth it but for this episode.

There is little in the way of plot here, just Anne Boleyn waiting to die. Oh, a few other things happen, but they are all linked to or contrasted with Anne's upcoming death. Hence Elizabeth is declared a bastard following the nullification of Anne's and Henry's marriage, and cruelly made to bear the costs of her mother's incarceration, but she is made safe by coming under the kindly wing of Jane Seymour (albeit via arguments involving the virgin/whore dichotomy, perhaps irresistible with a future Virgin Queen) who is, we learn, a staunch Catholic.

Chapuys has taken a liking to the vengeful Mary ("Is the harlot dead?", which is not much of a surprise: she is, after all, a first cousin of Charles V and a granddaughter of Ferdinand and Isabella. 

Scenes of Anne dressing up to look good for her execution (which is, as we will see, a performance) are nicely juxtaposed with Jane dressing herself to look nice for the King. Charles Brandon's little son asks, with an innocence of sorts, if he can see the execution because "I would really like to see someone die." The central, heavy fact of Anne's judicial killing is riffed on in all sorts of ways.

Thomas Boleyn is released. His children are dead or dying, but his first reaction, to Brandon's disgust, is of pleasure that he gets to keep his earldom. Such warped priorities define aristocracy. The King, in defiance of the death in which he bathes, walks into a random fountain and declares it a fountain of youth and, if the King says so, that's what it is. Better to escapee from reality than to face one's conscience, perhaps. Indeed, the last scene, even after Anne's achingly beautiful final moments, is of the King greedily stuffing himself with swan pie.

But all this is window dressing; Anne dies today. It has been decided. The last rites come early on, with the naïf Cranmer presiding over a curiously Catholic-lookng confession; the tents of Protestantism are, as yet, fluid. Then the performance begins; this is Anne's last morning, and she must put on make-up and her best finery for the public performance that is her death, and will define her life for posterity.

All this is cruelly and randomly interrupted by the executioner's lateness; the King postpones the execution by one day, utterly destroying Anne's carefully rehearsed composure. The facade collapses, and she collapses into hope, denial, bargaining, acceptance. Her last full day is spent pleasantly and calmly, reminiscing with friends, and putting away the mask of performance for a while.

Anne's last morning is signified as such by a caption telling us the date, and from this point the direction becomes increasingly arthouse and beautiful. Her last moments are, of course, the ultimate performative act. Alongside the jeers are sympathisers, and those in primitive awe of the royal aura she still carries. Cromwell prays (guilt?) while Brandon, his son, and Wyatt all watch. She looks so beautiful in her dignity. Time slows as she sees a flock of birds. The screen goes black and nothing happens ever again.

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