One of the best, and scandalously officially unrewarded, performances in a tv show in the last few years is Jeremy Northam’s Sir Thomas More in Showtime’s The Tudors. When I saw the trailer, I remember wondering what on earth such an excellent actor was doing in what looked like (I’m trying to be kind but find I can’t…) ‘Jilly Cooper does kings and queens’…
And so, out of curiosity and rather guiltily, I watched The Tudors. I’ll spare you the worst of my scathing of both the script and some of the acting, but happily there were treats to be found within to reward the long suffering viewer. It was wonderful to see a spirited cameo from Peter O’Toole, Nick Dunning was excellent as the scheming Thomas Boleyn and Natalie Dormer’s Anne, despite a serious case of over-annunciating, was suitably vivacious. Many have criticised the lack of historical accuracy, and whilst it’s true that Tudor England was not in fact just outside Dublin, if you can put your scruples to one side, most of it is fun (of sorts…).
Season 1 was much enhanced by Sam Neill as Thomas Wolsey. Neill managed to make a deeply flawed, somewhat grotesque character all too human, and deeply tragic. Northam, meanwhile, was quietly and unobtrusively anchoring the proceedings as Sir Thomas More, whilst labouring under the weight of incredibly unflattering headgear. His immense skill at seemingly doing nothing and yet telling you all you need to know with the subtlest of nuance was displayed here to excellent effect. Sir Thomas was a powerful presence, and Jeremy Northam’s assured mastery of “period-drama-speak” contrasted strongly with those members of the cast who had no theatrical training (Northam had a distinguished stage career before embarking on movie-making).
It was in season 2, following the death of Wolsey, that Northam’s Sir Thomas was allowed to take centre stage. The character of Sir Thomas More is well documented, as well as being firmly lodged in many peoples’ minds in his Paul Scofield incarnation (in the film of Robert Bolt’s A Man For All Seasons, 1966, dir. Fred Zinnemann). Our modern understanding of Thomas More is so strongly associated with Scofield’s much admired performance that Showtime must have known they needed to bring in a pretty big gun, and in Northam they got a super-sized cannon! A Man for All Seasons concentrates on More’s trial, but in The Tudors, Northam’s More is shown over a longer time period. We are shown his earnest burning of heretics, as well as his devotion to his family and the King. Northam is such a charismatic presence on screen that one almost feels those nasty heretics deserved it!
Of course, The Tudors charts the fall as well as the rise of More, and so Northam was afforded the opportunity to re-enact More’s trial, incarceration in the Tower, and execution. No amount of superlatives will convey the depth of my admiration for this part of his performance. There are many, many clips on youtube which, if you haven’t seen The Tudors (and I strongly urge you to do so) will give you a taste for what this talented, intelligent and powerful actor is capable of. From what might have seemed to be a colossal mistake on his part came one of his best performances. Compare with Scofield, and Northam does not come out wanting. How enjoyable an experience working on The Tudors was for an actor who has such an impressive array of movie credits (working with directors such as Robert Altman, Sidney Lumet and Steven Spielberg) I couldn’t say, but my goodness, it was worth it!
“More is a man of an angel’s wit and singular learning. I know not his fellow. For where is the man of that gentleness, lowliness and affability? And, as time requireth, a man of marvelous mirth and pastimes, and sometime of as sad gravity. A man for all seasons.” Robert Whittington, 1520
Jeremy Northam is about to be seen on US tv screens every week in Miami Medical, as Dr Matt Proctor, to air on CBS from April 2, 2010. The promos can be seen at http://www.cbs.com/primetime/miami_medical/
To meet other fans, get the latest news and chat about Jeremy’s work (a warm welcome is assured), please visit: http://www.jeremynorthaminfo.com
by Gill Fraser Lee