'The Spanish Princess': TV Review

Dazzling intrique, dubious history.
5/5/2019

Historical queen Catherine of Aragon finally takes center stage in Starz's lush miniseries about the woman who would become the first of Henry VIII's six wives.

Catherine of Aragon is best remembered as the pious intellectual wife Henry VIII humped-and-dumped for a younger, livelier wit who promised to bear him the future king. (Catherine's only child, whom Henry tried to name his bastard, still became England's first ruling queen — the Catholic zealot commonly known as Bloody Mary.) Eventually, the interloping Anne Boleyn lost her head and Henry moved on to four other wives, but Catherine's pop cultural legacy remains shrouded in shame: a woman so drab, barren and intolerable that a tyrant king had to create an entirely new religion just so he could defy the Pope and divorce her.

Surprisingly, few screen adaptations of Henry's blue bearding feature Catherine beyond her tragic disposal, and nearly all overlook her fascinating early years as the youngest child of Spain's ruthless monarchs Isabella and Ferdinand, pawned to the Tudors as a toddler and widowed at age 16 almost immediately after wedding the English royal heir. As our taste for queen content grows, Starz's delicious (and dubious) new miniseries, The Spanish Princess, seeks to rectify this with amplified pathos and fictionalized historiography. Here, teenage Catherine finally takes center stage, though now characterized less as a loyal and patient political servant than a sword-happy firebrand hellbent on fulfilling her messianic "destiny" to unite England and Spain under Christendom. But hey, there's also sex! 

Based on novels by popular historical fiction writer Philippa Gregory, The Spanish Princess is the threequel to Starz's enthralling miniseries The White Queen (2013) and The White Princess (2017), which each follow the heroines of England's War of the Roses. The newest series picks up little more than a decade after The White Princess left off, its protagonist Elizabeth of York (previously played by Jodie Comer and replaced by Alexandra Moen here) now planning for the arrival of her future daughter-in-law, Catherine. All three serials land somewhere between Game of Thrones and a traditional bodice ripper, featuring epic political machinations, majestic Renaissance production design and sensual, vigorous or just-plain-silly love scenes. (In the latest series, one lady-in-waiting is magically brought to orgasm merely seconds after a soldier stealthily corners her in a portcullis with a well-placed hand.)

The Spanish Princess is the ideal period soap, dexterously and intelligently balancing the webby intrigue of 16th century court life with the dewy eroticism of a classic melodrama. There's no guilt here. Just pleasure.

Charlotte Hope, best known for playing Ramsay Bolton's sadistic lover Myranda on Game of Thrones, stars as young Catherine, sent by her warrior queen mother to ally sunlit, affluent Spain with dreary, destitute England by marrying the delicate teenage son of King Henry VII. (In reality, Catherine technically had a better legitimate claim to the English throne than her father-in-law, thanks to ancient bloodlines.) However, her gentle husband soon succumbs to illness and she's left to be brokered once again by the monarchs, diplomats and sycophants laboring to maintain their own agendas. But she won't accept defeat.

Luckily for her, her departed husband's passionate and impetuous young brother, the future Henry VIII, is hot — and easily manipulable. Now she must convince everyone at court, and especially the Vatican, that she and wan Prince Arthur (Angus Imrie) never actually consummated their brief marriage, a lie that could undo her potential union with dopey redhead Prince Harry (Ruairi O'Connor).

Hope is fiery, with a thin but believable Spanish accent — to layman's ears, at least — and her Catherine is an Iberian fish out of water in cold, gray England, unused to the rigid social dogma and cultural homogeny of Northern Europe. Her entourage includes Lina (Stephanie Levi-John), an African-Iberian noblewoman whose family was forced to give up Islam during the Spanish Reconquista, and Lina's forbidden love, Oviedo (Aaron Cobham), a devout crypto-Muslim guardsman.

Some of the brightest moments in the first four episodes include broad scenes of culture shock from both sides of the new peace: her in-laws' dismay at her daily baths requiring expensive and exotic herbs to soak in; and Catherine's horror at realizing she'll spend the rest of her days in dismal, damp castles after a childhood glorying in the Mediterranean splendor of the Alhambra. Far from an imperial doormat, the sharp-tongued Spaniard spits back just as much acid as she gets from Arthur's grieving and mistrusting relatives.

Catherine steps into the viper's nest the moment she sets foot in England, but her greatest enemy (and scene partner) is the king's intractable mother, Lady Margaret Beaufort (Harriet Walter), a godly woman who devoted her life to ensuring her son, an unlikely inheritor, would one day be crowned. In their best and most hilariously bitter scene together, Lady Margaret ambushes Catherine in a hallway following the death of her grandson, desperate to know if the girl is pregnant with the future English sovereign. "I have no news for you," Catherine declares with not-so-hidden disdain, and without warning, Lady Margaret grabs at the girl's breasts to check if they're swollen, unrelenting even when a shocked Catherine pushes her away. Walter's malevolence is pitch-perfect here, as she maintains light amusement even while assaulting a vulnerable opponent.

As with The Spanish Princess' predecessors, the most compelling storylines don't revolve around the glamorous protagonists, but the peripheral and often powerless women who encircle their orbits. Walker is a worthy successor to The White Queen's Amanda Hale and The White Princess' Michelle Fairley, who each played the martinet Lady Margaret with empathetic thorniness. She's a classic Monstrous Mother-in-Law, but simultaneously a relatable scorned woman. In a misguided attempt to comfort her distressed adolescent granddaughter Meg (Georgie Henley) about the girl's impending marriage to the Scottish king, she reminds her that long ago she, too, had been a political asset who became a wife at age 12, and then a mother and widow at 13. (Them's the breaks, I guess.)

My favorite player is Margaret Pole (Laura Carmichael, in a welcome performance following her stint as Downton Abbey's Lady Edith), whose mentally disabled younger brother/potential Tudor usurper was executed to ensure that Spain would agree to Catherine's marriage to Arthur. With torn loyalties, a principled soul and the ambition only to survive her tormentors, she becomes the series' most sympathetic victim.

If you can push yourself through some laughable feminist-baiting scenes, such Catherine's attempt appeal to Prince Harry's innate brutality with an outlandish seduction-by-swordplay tête-à-tête, or the tedious, shoehorned romance between star-crossed attendants Lina and Oviedo, you'll find a worthy story about a sly young woman trying to marry her duty and her desire. I wish the series paid as much heed to her brilliant mind as it does her doubtful martial arts skills — after all, even her nemesis Thomas Cromwell said of her, "If not for her sex, she could have defied all the heroes of History."

Cast: Charlotte Hope, Ruairi O'Connor, Harriet Walter, Laura Carmichael, Elliot Cowan, Georgie Henley, Stephanie Levi-John, Aaron Cobham, Nadia Parkes, Alicia Borrachero
Executive producers: Emma Frost, Mathew Graham, Colin Callender, Charlie Hampton, Scott Huff, Charles Pattinson
Premieres: Sunday, 8 p.m. ET/PT (Starz)