Though no student of history by any stretch, even this doomed-to-be-repetitive TV critic was taken aback by how “The Spanish Princess” relies on historical facts for its episodic drama. Delving into Catherine of Aragon’s life from the time she leaves Spain to marry Arthur, Prince of Wales, and the tumultuous international fallout thereafter, the new Starz miniseries isn’t short on conflict, romance, or excuses for lavish period decor — it does look quite good. Yet beyond the would-be cliffhangers that end each of the four episodes, there’s simply not a lot going on in Emma Frost and Matthew Graham’s dud of a period drama. In other words, 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.
Catherine, played by Catherine Hope (one of the other nuns in “The Nun”), is a bit of a whiner. When first tasked with her duty to marry an English prince, the Spanish princess (hey, that’s the title!) doesn’t like moving from the warm and sunny land of her birth to a place where its occupants have many different words for rain. And rain — or “drizzle,” as Arthur (Angus Imrie) insists it’s called — is the first fight the young couple has. Later, she complains about not getting her afternoon nap, her daily bath, or her right to hide away in her room for as long as she wants when her new family wants to meet her. Frankly, the latter is a fair argument, but by this time the princess-and-future-queen’s first-world problems are proving a bit grating.
That’s also how her new landlords feel, as Catherine soon makes enemies with the English royalty who greets her. Some don’t like her attitude. Some don’t like that she comes from a place where Muslims worship Allah instead of Catholics worshipping the one, true God (as they pointedly insist every time He comes up). Some don’t like her, one assumes, because they think she’s weak. She’s not weak — not really — but the series takes too long establishing the kind of backbone she has, first exposing her privileged personality and treating her as the trading chip she is. (England only agreed to the marriage because they’re very poor, and Spain is very rich; they need rich allies to stave off invasion.)
Of course, the turbulent early relationship is meant to foreshadow bigger problems to come, but the manner in which it’s presented spoils the series’ most compelling reason for being: telling the women’s side of history. Oft-ignored by the books, it’s odd that “The Spanish Princess” would spend so much time detailing Catherine’s gullibility and entitlement; she often flashes back to her warrior mother, Isabella I of Castile, who she remembers giving her strategical advice while being sewn up after a bloody battle. Yet comparing the two women does the younger no favors, and it often feels like Isabella would’ve been a better character to track.
These focal choices also do little for our second protagonist, Lina de Cardonnes (Stephanie Levi-John), Catherine’s lady-in-waiting who comes from a noble African-Iberian family who sacrificed a great deal — including their Muslim faith — to secure their position in Spanish society. Not only does she seem much cooler than Catherine (and clearly faces a more difficult path to success), but much of her identity is lost to a forbidden love affair with an unworthy soldier, Oviedo (Aaron Cobham). Though both get ample screentime, it never really feels like the series is invested in their stories; Lina is a compelling mystery not fully explored.
Perhaps she’ll be more fleshed out in later episodes, but only devout fans of these kinds of period dramas will get there. Most of the episodes end on a bolded part of Catherine’s biography. I won’t outline them here, but a quick scan of Wikipedia will reveal them rather easily. Again, it’s not that these significant moments should be ignored, it’s just that they shouldn’t be the only reason you keep coming back. Frost and Graham lean on these endings to hook audiences the same way original mysteries do, except the fates of those characters aren’t preordained. If there were richer, deeper thematic content to consider or a bit of soapy fun to be had with the many blossoming romances — “The Spanish Princess” takes at least one page out of the “Outlander” playback, in that its characters are hornt — then perhaps these chapter markers would be fine. Instead, it feels like viewers are meant to believe the story will make a left turn when we know it’s going right.
Even some of the most gripping dramatic moments are undermined by a lack of consistent tone. Margaret Beaufort (Harriet Walter), the mother of the King, is a cartoonish villain; an evil stepmother sprung to life solely to ruin Catherine’s life. Yet while she’s off making a Disney movie, others are dialing it all the way back. A heartbroken Arthur tries to pass of the line, “He’s made love to her — with words, at least,” without so much as an awkward eye-bat of absurdity. The dialogue provides opportunities for humor that could lighten the drama’s heavy load, but it’s rarely taken advantage of — or blown all the way out, so that it clashes with other elements of the scene.
Props to the props department, as well as everyone else designing sets, handling makeup, or crafting wardrobe, but those fundamental elements of a good period drama are the only real reason to spend eight hours with this dull trip back in time. History buffs will know what’s coming, while those who are looking for “Outlander” or “Downton Abbey” will be disappointed by the lack of juicy thrills. “The Spanish Princess” just doesn’t add up for anybody.
“The Spanish Princess” premieres Sunday, May 5 at 8 p.m. ET on Starz.