Throughout history, there have been many famous historical figures, especially famous kings and queens from many royal families across the world. Some get known for their long and peaceful reign, others are remembered as saviors or the downfall of their nation. While some were good and fair rulers, others are remembered for their tyranny and unfairness. Though many famous royals have a certain reputation and the portrayal of them has now become stereotypical when they are portrayed in media such as television, films and theatre. Much of the stereotypes are formed from historical facts and documents that give a certain picture of the person, and because it is all from written documents, much might be missing. There is no one who was alive during that time that can say what is true and what is not. Therefore a lot is left open to interpretation and many gaps to be filled. When actors portray a historical figure, then what makes the portrayal good and what makes it bad.
Henry VIII is one of the many famous monarchs in English rich and a long history of royals and their stormy reign. Henry is known mainly for his role in the beginning of the reformation of the English church. When talking about Henry he is often described as egotistical, tyrannical, vulgar and overall a bad king in his later years. Because of his unstable reign, six marriages and his drama-filled life, Henry and other family members of the Tudor dynasty have been an extremely popular subject. Historians, authors, filmmakers and theatre directors have taken on Henry´s story over and over again, and therefore are countless numbers of books, plays, movies and TV-series.
The Tudors have even sparked the interest of film and TV-makers since back in the 1980´s when the first Tudor film was released in 1895 (Parrill). In fact, Henry and his daughter Elizabeth are amongst the monarchs who have been most often covered by cinema. Those films and TV-shows are only a presentation of British history, they are usually considered more of an interpretation of it rather than being historically accurate (Doran). Despite much criticism over the years on the historical accuracy of the movies, these types of films are usually very profitable at the box office (Parrill).
In all these films and TV-shows there have been many esteemed and other lesser known actors that have faced the challenge of portraying Henry. When it comes to playing any historical character there are many factors that play a part in how the character is portrayed for an audience. Such factors could, for example, be a point of view, if the character is the main character of the story or a secondary one, how historically accurate it is and so on. One of the biggest factors is of-course how the actor decides to portray the character he is playing. So even though Henry VIII has been on screen and stage an infinite number of times, he can be portrayed completely differently, almost as it is not the same person that is being portrayed.
Naturally, there are many portrayals that follow the classic stereotype of Henry as that has become the best-known representation of him. It is often difficult task for movie makers and screenwriters to fit many years into the small storytelling window of only a few hours. Therefore, there is often a short time for a proper character development and the actors face the challenge of portraying a complex person with those restraints. Often the actor does a marvelous job, even so good that they become better known as the character they portrayed on screen, though sometimes the character falls flat and does not develop as a person over the course of the story.
Eric Bana’s and Ray Winstone’s portrayal of Henry can almost be sorted into those two categories. Despite portraying the same historical figure there is a comparative difference in their portrayals. But to be able to judge a portrayal of Henry fairly, it is important to have the basic background knowledge of the man that Henry was. For one thing, Henry VIII is one of the most famous monarchs in the history of England. Henry is the younger son of Elizabeth of York and King Henry VII and became an heir to the throne when his older brother Arthur died. Then at the age of only eighteen, he succeeded to the throne when his father passed. When people think of Henry they usually picture the famous painting of him in his later years by Holbein.
People mainly think of Henry when he was older, when he was divorcing his wife Catherine and becoming the tyrant he is now known as. Fewer people think or even know of how Henry was like when he was younger. Like most royals, Henry got an especially good education and was highly intelligent. He played many instruments, composed music and wrote books as well. He spoke not only English but also Latin, French and Spanish. Henry was even named “Defender of the Faith” by the Pope as he was very religious and wrote a book supporting the Roman Catholic church. Not to mention his tremendous athletic skills. Henry is said to have been powerfully built, an excellent huntsman and fond of various athletic activities such as tennis, dancing and jousting. When Henry became king he inherited a peaceful and stable country and his father left a good amount of money in the monarch finances. During the early years of his reign, Henry was to a great degree concentrated on the foreign politics of Western Europe, engaging in military crusade and expanding the navy.
Then he slowly began losing popularity around the time he decided to divorce his wife Catherine, which is now often called “The King´s Great Matter” (Royal Encyclopaedia). The later years of his reign, the Reformation, his six marriages and brutality is what made Henry one of the more famous monarchs in British history. Those later years are more usually portrayed on screen as opposed to his more peaceful years. Although that might be true, there are also works that take place during his reign but do not focus on Henry himself. Such is the case with The Other Boleyn Girl. The book was published in 2001 and is about Mary Boleyn, which was one of Henry´s mistresses, and her more famous sister Anne. Then in 2008 a film based on the book was released starring Natalie Portman, Scarlett Johansson and the Australian actor Eric Bana as Henry VIII. The book is told from Mary´s view and tells the story about the sisters’ fight over the king´s affection and what Anne went through to get to be crowned the queen of England. It is the well-known story of Anne Boleyn but told from a different perspective. Aside from being grouped together by having the same material, The Other Boleyn Girl and Henry VIII have another thing in common, Peter Morgan is credited as the screenwriter for both movies. He had declared that he had no interest in working on another movie about the Tudors, but as he read The Other Boleyn Girl, he was intrigued by the possibility of tackling the same material with a different approach (Parrill).
As with everything that is based on historical events, art only imitates life, and since the movie is based on a book which is based on real-life events, it would not be said that the film is historically accurate. Henry is not the main character and that fact alone influences how Henry is portrayed in the film. Bana´s Henry is different from Winstone´s Henry in many ways.
Overall Bana´s portrayal is more flat, as he develops little over the course of the film and the audience only gets to see one side of him. Bana is thought to be very handsome and he is believable as a version of Henry that women would easily fall for and even fight over, though he is a much-sexualized version of the real Henry. Despite Bana´s character being the so-called “winning prize”, Henry´s only part is to be the bratty and ill-tempered monarch that got everything he wanted and set his eyes on. Audiences do get a few glimpses of the more sensitive and sensual Henry at the beginning of the film before he becomes the dyspeptic king that is more like the stereotypical description of Henry that people know today. Aside from that, there is no depth to the character and Bana´s portrayal falls flat.
Many critics deem the casting of Bana problematic, as he mainly just walks around looking determined and handsome as an attempt to portray a monarch and act in a kingly manner (Parrill). He does not do much else than ordering people around and pursuing Natalie Portman´s Anne. As with most reviews, there are many critics that express their opinion and naturally, they do not all have the same one. So while some critics might praise Winston’s portrayal and disliked Bana´s one, other might feel the exact opposite or even dislike both portrayals, and then there is the audience.
Henry VIII is a TV movie that was realeased in two parts in 2003 and as the title gives away is about the 38 years of Henry´s reign. The film got good reception when released and has the rating of 7.3 on IMDb (IMDb). It even won an International Emmy for the best television movie/mini-series. There are countless great actors in it such as Mark Strong and David Suchet, Helena Boham Carter as Anne Boleyn and then there is Ray Winstone that plays Henry himself. Unlike Bana, Winstone looks similar to Henry as he looks in the famous Holbein painting, as he exudes physicality. Winstone´s portrayal is not one of Henry´s educated side, he does not study theology or writes poems and he does not seem to be very conflicted over his religion. Instead, Henry behaves more like a modern-day mobster, ruthless, crude and boorish. The casting of Winstone as Henry was criticised somewhat as Winstone talks in his normal cockney accent in the role, which was a working-class accent and considered unsuited for a monarch (Parrill). Despite that, he manages to portray Henry exceedingly well. To begin with Henry ages convincingly throughout the film and the audience gets to see more than one side to Henry. He is not just portrayed as the ruthless king he became but also the more vulnerable man he could be and how the endless pursuit to get a male heir plagued him.
Overall Winstone´s Henry is more memorable and “closer to the source” than Bana´s portrayal of him. As has been noted there are many factors that influence how a character is portrayed and it is always a difficult task for actors to portray a historically famous person. There are some similarities between the two portrayals of Henry, though the differences are more noticeable.
All things considered Winstone’s portrayal of Henry is of a higher quality, the character has more time to develop and there is more depth to the character. Even though Bana is a much better looking Henry, his portrayal is one sided and a deflated version of this great monarch. Winstone on the other hand resembles Henry more and plays a more compelling Henry. So despite being two of the many faces of Henry VIII, the two portrayals would fall into two different categories.