Henry VIII is coming back to the throne. And this time, he’s bloody gorgeous.
Showtime’s epic 10-part miniseries, “The Tudors,” holds court starting at 10 p.m. EDT Sunday, with Jonathan Rhys Meyers cast as the unlikely lead.
And much like Henry VIII, the show’s producers can’t disguise their ambitions — to produce a show that finally gets Showtime an HBO-style hit, popular both with the Emmy nobility and peasants alike. They’ve invested an unprecedented $38 million and have spent millions more promoting it.
“We are hoping to be back here filming for another two, three, maybe four years, because the material we have to work with is so rich and there’s so much story to tell. But we must command an audience, so we have tried to make the story as modern and fabulously good-looking as we can,” said executive producer Morgan O’Sullivan at the end of the 22-week shoot in Ireland.
“ ‘Sexy’ is the word,” O’Sullivan added with a smile. “But it’s all done to advance the story. It’s not gratuitous.”
Hmmm. Within the first half-hour, Henry manages — between winning a joust and pursuing war with France — to father his first bastard son and have his way with another of his wife’s busty handmaidens.
Rhys Meyers defends the copious flesh and bumping and grinding in “The Tudors” as on the mark.
“These people had an awful lot of sex, more sex than we have today,” said Rhys Meyers, puffing on a Marlboro in his trailer as a downpour pummeled its tin roof.
Rhys Meyers, who’s starred in “Bend It Like Beckham” and “Match Point,” has become a face of Hugo Boss and Versace with his catwalk-model cheeks, lips and rail-thin physique.
In other words, he’s nothing like the pale, square-headed fatty in the famed Hans Holbein portraits.
“I remember having this conversation with Showtime: If you want somebody who looks like Henry, don’t cast me,” Rhys Meyers said. “But we begin the story when Henry and I were the same age, 29, when history tells us he was athletic and good-looking. ... I may end up with a load of prosthetics slapped on me and a big red wig and such, but for now I just have to show off a lot of range for 10 hours.”
The first two hour-long episodes suffer from the clunky dialogue typical of historical epics, as characters are obliged to announce obvious bits of background to each other for the viewers’ benefit.
We’re twice told, for example, that the English ambassador to the Vatican assassinated in the opening credits was the king’s uncle — so that's why Henry is steamed. It seems two times too many. More generally, too many scenes involve people processing in and out of rooms and explaining who they are.
That’s perhaps unavoidable in a story line that, between all the lusting, seeks to explain the 1520s world of Henry VIII — a man desperate to gain not only a male heir, but also to project English power in continental Europe.
This means much conniving in a three-way power struggle with Francis I of France and Charles V of Spain, the nephew of Henry’s child-poor wife, Queen Catherine. In Henry’s court, the real power broker is Cardinal Thomas Wolsey (played in an expert dry delivery by Sam Neill) whose own aspiration to become grotesquely wealthy — and, eventually, the pope — influences Henry’s strategic alliances.
Confused? After a while, you can drop the name tags. “The Tudors” gradually gains dramatic traction as cast members either lose their heads or bed down for the long soap-opera haul.
And the plot finds its convincing center once Anne Boleyn — played with inspiration by newcomer Natalie Dormer — enters Henry’s life in the third episode.
Dormer’s bewitching face (“Those eyes are like dark hooks for the soul,” says her court-diplomat father) can shift from angel to arch manipulator with a simple head turn or cocked brow. Just two years out of London acting school, Dormer, 23, was signed immediately after an incendiary audition with Rhys Meyers.
“Chemistry was of obvious significance and importance. And Jonny and I just hit it off. Within five minutes of meeting him, we were doing love scenes. I mean, this is the actor’s life!” Dormer said, covering her face in mock embarrassment.
Dormer says she read four biographies of Anne Boleyn to get into her character and is thrilled to be playing “such a firecracker — one of the first emancipated, independent young girls in British history.”
Set against such youthful exuberance is Neill, 59, who spends much of “The Tudors” telling the king how to play his cards — but ends up losing everything because he can’t persuade the pope to annul Henry’s marriage to Catherine.
Showtime didn’t provide advance copies of the final four episodes, but everyone on-set concedes it ends with Wolsey’s humiliating removal as chief government minister in 1529 — and England on the precipice of Reformation. Henry’s marriage to Boleyn is still four years off, at least, according to the history books.
“I hope I can make it to the end of Season Two without losing my head. I intend to survive as long as I can,” Dormer said.
No such luck for Neill. “Everybody else is coming back presumably to do the second series, touch wood,” Neill said in his trademark delivery, equal parts dry and wry. “But I won’t be back because I’m dead.”