The Spanish Princess, Starz’s new costume drama about Catherine of Aragon and the young Henry VIII, is a story about love and death and revenge and betrayal and power. There are alliances between noble families. There are plagues. There are strong performances by Harriet Walter as the power-hungry grandmother Margaret Beaufort, and Laura Carmichael as the tragically marginalized aunt. There’re some half-hearted gestures toward the immense cultural complexity of the recently conquered black Muslim population of Spain that, predictably, gets very little attention. But what I really want to talk about is the hats.
The hats are plentiful, meticulous, and striking. They are made from multiple combinations of textures and materials, cresting and curving into an astonishing variety of silhouettes, gracing the heads of noblewomen and petulant boy princes and soldiers. There are fur hats and linen bonnets and veils. Harriet Walter’s Beaufort wears a pointed cap with long ladderlike woven side flaps that’s so magisterial and stern that I immediately took seven screenshots and texted them to many people with the caption “look at this HAT!”
There are great dresses and doublets and jackets and sleeves as well, of course — hats this good would never work so well if the rest of the looks were careless. But the hats are produced with a studied care that’s part painstaking replication (look for any of the known images of Margaret Beaufort and you’ll see what I mean) and part inspiration stemming from prodigious research.
Sadly, I also came away from the first four episodes of The Spanish Princess with the sense that its hats have been crafted with more care than its characters. A few of them do spring to life with more persuasive detail than the others. Carmichael’s Maggie Pole is good, as are Walter’s Beaufort, Alexandra Moen as Queen Elizabeth, and a few very good scenes with Georgie Henley as Meg Tudor, the younger sister who’s being sent away to marry the ancient king of Scotland. The common thread of all those characters is that they’re women on the sidelines railing against their marginalized positions, desperately trying to manipulate the men around them to achieve their own goals. They often fail. But The Spanish Princess is most confident and effective in its characterizations when it’s focused on women whose battles are already lost, and who are scrabbling to regain some foothold of power. The best characters are those the show can pit against their own marginality.
But in the limelight of the story, for the characters who are meant to be central, things are a bit of a drag. Catherine of Aragon herself, played capably by Charlotte Hope, can’t seem to make up her mind about what kind of person she’s going to be. She’s maybe too privileged, or maybe self-conscious of her privilege, or maybe wickedly smart, or maybe very blind to the world, or maybe sweet and honest, or maybe an inept liar — honestly it’s hard to say. When she takes a sharp turn into manipulative territory, I was legitimately unsure if it was meant to be a heel turn or a sign of her comparative naïveté. Her eventual husband-to-be, Henry VIII (Ruairi O’Connor), is similarly sketchy. The show seems to use the weight of viewers’ knowledge about who he is as a stand-in for building a character. He’s all curly red hair and smirking smile, sexual capacity and a looming petulance that doesn’t have much basis in The Spanish Princess’s writing except for some light rivalry with his gloriously dopey older brother. (The unfortunate Prince Arthur is some of the most inspired casting of the series; nothing carries Arthur’s soft, pouting immaturity better than Angus Imrie’s face framed by Arthur’s fantastically terrible haircut.)
The biggest enigmas, and the biggest missed opportunities, are the two nonwhite characters in The Spanish Princess, Lina (Stephanie Levi-John) and Oviedo (Aaron Cobham). The series’s first episode sets up a brief, clunkily expositional opening about Catholics conquering the Muslim territories in Spain, with a nod to the fact that Lina, Catherine of Aragon’s head lady-in-waiting, and Oviedo, a member of her military retinue, are black Muslims who’ve converted to survive. They travel with her to England, and The Spanish Princess seemingly cannot make up its mind about whether it wants to use them to tell a story of prejudice, or ignore their race and religion entirely.
It’s true that many of our most grotesque and damaging modern race theories are products of the 19th century, and wouldn’t have been active in pre-Elizabethan England. But if The Spanish Princess were attempting to make a nuanced point about the history of white privilege, I’d have to hope that Oviedo and Lina would be more thoughtfully drawn characters inside the story. Instead, they hit the same character beats over and over again: Lina has faith in Catherine and assumes Catherine will pick her a good Tudor husband, while Oviedo wisely believes they will get dumped from Catherine’s retinue the second she can’t afford to keep them. Lina’s excessive obedience feels, frankly, infantilizing, and Oviedo’s knowingness is no substitute for a thoroughly understood internal life. I hope that they get more opportunities later in the series, but in the beginning they’re used as walking talismans of Catherine’s own foreignness.
This isn’t to say that The Spanish Princess isn’t worth watching. But the story of Henry VIII is one of the most familiar narratives in English history, and starting the story several years earlier than it usually begins is not enough to give the series a point of view that feels distinct from other Tudor adaptations. Catherine attempts to bring Spanish culture with her to England, but her inability to shape England into a place that looks more like her home country mirrors The Spanish Princess’s similarly incomplete transformation of the Tudor story. Try as it might, it can’t help slipping back into the story we already know, and although the result is still entertaining, it’s also less original than I might’ve hoped. The hats, though — the show’s foundations may feel a bit musty, but at least everything’s topped off with a truly lovely headpiece.