This new series from Starz has to be the hottest period drama airing on television at this very moment. At least, social media gives me the impression that more people are talking about The Spanish Princess than about Gentleman Jack, which is counterintuitive since the latter is on premium cable juggernaut HBO while the former is on the much weaker Starz network, best known for period dramas like Outlander and Black Sails.
Either way, whereas Gentleman Jack has gotten off to a fantastic start, The Spanish Princess has left me underwhelmed. Even though the shows are set 300 years apart, they actually have a lot in common. They are both what I’d call “revisionist” period dramas, and are very much a reflection of our modern concerns and sensibilities. Both shows feature ample “diversity.” In Gentleman Jack’s case, we’re dealing with a nonconformist lesbian character who shocks and scandalizes her Regency era (soon-to-be-Victorian-era) neighbors. In the Spanish Princess – at least in this first episode, “The New World” – we’re dealing with Catherine of Aragon, the titular Spanish Princess.
Like Anne Lister in Gentleman Jack, Princess Catherine (Charlotte Hope) is headstrong, proud, and unwilling to truckle to the powerful Englishmen that come into her orbit. The “New World” of the episode’s title is the Kingdom of England, where Catherine’s mother Queen Isabella has sent her daughter to seal a treaty with the English through through an arranged marriage between her daughter and the English king’s son.
Our story begins in 1501, at the famed palace complex known as the Alhambra. Queen Isabella’s Spain is depicted as a progressive, multicultural, and technologically advance kingdom. Viewing events through Catherine’s eyes, her warm and sunny Spanish homeland contrasts sharply with a cold, rainy, muddy, and bleak England, which seems to be inhabited principally by brutish louts and sanctimonious shrews. It makes sense though, that Catherine would be taken aback by such a decidedly different cultural and geographical place.
Less than 5 minutes into the episode, we meet our first black character, Catherine’s lady-in-waiting Lina de Cardonnes (Stephane Levi-John). We quickly realize The Spanish Princess’s Spain is quite diverse, with black soldiers and officials as well. Indeed, when Catherine is shipped off to England, one of the Infanta’s guards is a black man named Oviedo, who is clearly being set up as Lina’s love interest. The plot thickens, however, when Lina catches Oviedo praying towards Mecca on the ship to England. Given that we’re in a world that will soon witness the Spanish Inquisition, Oviedo is surprisingly unbothered at being discovered. Expressing, again, a modern sensibility, he protests that his loyalty to Allah and loyalty to the Infanta are not contradictory.
Another progressive element of the show is its treatment of Queen Isabella of Castile (Alicia Borrachero). No mention is made of King Ferdinand of Argon, Catherine’s father, who was very much alive in 1501. Queen Isabella is depicted as a warrior queen, in the mold of Boadicea or Joan of Arc. She is depicted as singlehandedly forcing the surrender of Emir of Granada back in 1492, a broadsword at his throat – a look of triumph on her face. Back in present day 1501, we see Queen Isabella mount a horse and lead her soldiers into battle wearing full plate armor. Indeed, during the battle – against unrepentant Moorish rebels who block Catherine’s path to the coast and thus to England – we get a rather comical scene of a Moor – who made the mistake of throwing a spear at the queen – jogging away ineffectually, not even looking to scared, as the queen rides in at a gallop to lop off his head.
It’s important to view all in its historical context. The showrunners assure us that there’s ample historicity here the supports their depiction of these female and non-white characters. It is certainly well-established that Moorish Spain, known as al-Andalus, was decidedly more multicultural than, say, England. Nevertheless, I find it strange that the Moors – based on my understanding of their history – are quite so dark-skinned, portrayed by actors that appear to be of West African extraction, like many African-Americans. I had always understood the bulk of the Moors to be of Arabic or Berber stock, peoples who generally look quite different from sub-Saharan Africans. In any case, it’s fair enough to assume at least some of the peoples brought to Spain by the Ummayads were dark-skinned, so one ought to be able to accept this casting. Levi-John does an admirable job with her role, playing it with an earnestness that makes her seem both vulnerable and indomitable.
This is just a minor quibble. I recognize historical dramas always walk that line between historical accuracy and modern-day dramatic appeal. The Spanish Princess is aware of this tension. Indeed, there’s a disclaimer at the end of the show acknowledging the major poetic license taken by the showrunners. Of course, opinions vary widely on the importance of “historical accuracy” in a period drama. For example, one female reviewer, though acknowledging the first episode’s lack of historical accuracy, nevertheless applauded the showrunners for creating a period drama with a female-POV and a diverse cast of fully-developed non-white characters. I tend to agree with Ben Travers at Indiewire:
even with a shift of perspective to women and minority characters, there’s not a lot to learn from “The Spanish Princess,” and little to enjoy either.
For the record, I have no objection to diversity and multiculturalism in period dramas, provided, that is, that it’s not so jarring that it distracts from the narrative or feels forced. For that reason, I’m not a fan of “colorblind casting.” I always worry that I’ll be tarred and feathered for my stance on this issue, but it’s really not about politics. Gentleman Jack is about an iconoclastic lesbian, but I’d watch it all day because it feels true to the time, place, and context.
A great counter example is the movie Mary Queen of Scots. Adrian Lester did a great job playing Queen Elizabeth I’s ambassador Lord Thomas Randolph, but it was still distracting because they cast a black man to play a historical figure who was obviously white, and they did this without explanation. It just took me out of the movie. Many people defend this sort of thing on the basis of addressing underrepresentation of certain marginalized groups on film. I totally get that. I think Idris Elba as James Bond is a fine idea. Heck, we could have a white Shaft, right? But I think most would agree it would be really bizarre to cast a white man as, say, one of Nat Turner’s rebels, or as any other historical personage we know to have been black.
What really did stick in my craw was the way Queen Isabella was depicted. Did I somehow miss that she was a warrior queen? Even Catherine wants to get in on the slaughter, but Isabella reminds her her duty to Spain will be fulfilled by her marriage. She can’t risk Catherine, which makes sense, but yet she can risk her own life by riding at the front of a calvary charge and jumping headlong into the fray? It’s just silly to me, unless we’ve got some historical evidence she engaged in that sort of behavior.
Why did the creators think it necessary to depict Isabella – obviously a strong female character – exhibit her strength through such masculine pursuits? This is not Wonder Woman, and Isabella is not an Amazonian. As such, this was one of the modern creative decisions that felt like it was force-feeding me an ill-conceived feminist narrative. It thoroughly took me out of the show. A shame too, because Borrachero makes for a convincing queen. Historically speaking, this was by far my biggest gripe with the episode.
In any case, Catherine arrives in England without incident, despite some stormy seas. Catherine and her retainers are classic transplants: now that they’ve reached their destination, they can’t help but compare everything unfavorably to their old Spanish home. I can’t say I blame them – the Tudors are one dysfunctional family.
First, King Henry VII (Elliot Cowan) is a mess. Did this guy really managed to win the Wars of the Roses and seize the throne “by right of conquest?” The king is a nervous, impetuous wreck, who is obviously quite desperate to seal a deal with the Spaniards before his enemies rise up once more. Clearly, the fate of the last king to bear his name, Henry VI, who lost his throne (twice), his sanity, and his heir before meeting an ignomimnious end himself. He’s a slithering character here, but a little over the top.
As history buffs will recall, Catherine is not destined to marry younger son Harry “Henry” Tudor. No indeed, she has been betrothed nearly her entire life to Arthur Tudor, heir to the throne. Arthur (Angus Imrie) was perfectly cast – this kid has “medieval” written all over him, from his gaunt, angular features to the horrific bowl cut he calls his hairstyle. He’s already won Catherine over, however, with poetic and passionate love letters the betrothed couple has been exchanging.
It doesn’t take Catherine long to figure out that Arthur – that milksop – doesn’t have a romantic bone in his body. During an awkward first meeting, it becomes clear that Arthur knows nothing about the letters. Catherine is aghast that she’s been sharing her most passionate thoughts with … who? The salt in the wound is that Arthur is such a dull boy.
Enter Harry Tudor, the future Henry VIII, though nobody knows that yet. Harry (Ruairi O’Connor) is much better looking than dour Arthur. Plus, he’s lively, gregarious, flirtatious, energetic. He’s everything Arthur’s note. Arthur can’t find the words to write a respectful letter to his future wife, whereas Henry takes up the task with gusto – and likes shooting off Spanish crossbows indoors just for fun. Catherine doesn’t know what to make of him, but she’s clearly intrigued.
The Tudor women give Catherine an even cooler reception. The Queen Mother, Margaret Beaufort (Harriet Walker), is a severe old woman who takes an immediate dislike to the Infanta, calling out her stubbornness, arrogance, and pompous piety. But she’s not entirely wrong. King Henry VII’s queen, Elizabeth (Alexandra Moen) appears to share Catherine’s piety – except that she pairs it with a Machiavellian streak she uses to snuff out threats within and without the family. Chief among these threats, Elizabeth fears the machinations of cousin Maggie Pole (Laura Carmichael – Lady Edith of Downton Abbey – cast yet again as a woman to whom the Fates have not been kind). As it happens, Maggie is close to Arthur. However, Elizabeth eventually tells Catherine that Maggie’s son was put to death – at Queen Isabella’s instigation – in order to secure Arthur and Catherine’s succession.
After Episode 1, The Spanish Princess feels a lot like other Starz productions Black Sails and Outlander. I’ve watched both, and prefer Outlander, but, truth be told, they can both feel a little hokey. Too “cute;” too contrived. That’s how “The New World” feels. Catherine herself struck me as a little wooden, and only a few of the supporting characters really sold me on their performances. The costumes and settings were just fine – middle of the pack. As the story progresses, the next few episodes definitely have the potential to improve.
Bottom-line: 5/10 – really underwhelming first episode, but an interesting angle to an oft-told tale justifies watching Ep. 2.
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