Few historical queens, apart from perhaps Marie Antoinette and Elizabeth I, have had so much screen time devoted to them as Anne Boleyn. All of Henry VIII’s other five wives added together get the amount of attention paid to them as Wife v. 2.o. In fact, movie and TV series plots tend to go something like this:
1. Catherine of Aragon is A Dried Up Old Husk who needs to GTFO after the first 10 minutes of the film have passed establishing that she is A) Henry’s wife, and B) Old and therefore boring. Being Catholic doesn’t help her any, either.
2. ANNE BOLEYN 4 LYFE
3. Well, OK, at least until the last 10 minutes of the film when she loses her head very dramatically.
4. Epilogue, explaining that Henry married four other ladies, whom he either divorced or had beheaded, except for the last one who survived him only to die tragically a few years later. The End. Roll credits.
Something about Anne has captured our imaginations to such an extent that we can’t seem to get enough of her. She’s often characterized in fiction as the raven-haired seductress who sees Henry as the greatest matrimonial prize of all, worth all the suffering and indignation for a shot at the throne of England, the poster child for the phrase “Pride goeth before the fall.”
The reality is probably a lot more banal that that — there’s a lively discussion in academic circles as to just how eager and willing she was to be Henry’s bride. Certainly, her family wasted no time in exploiting the king’s infatuation with her (after his infatuation with her sister had burned itself out without advancing the family very far), and whether or not it was Anne’s idea to withhold her body as some form of long con seduction strategy or just because she legitimately wasn’t attracted to Henry and was trying desperately to forestall the inevitable is up to debate. Either way, Anne’s short stint as Queen of England tends to get repackaged every decade or so based on the contemporary cultural perception of women in power.
So, let’s take a look at some of the iconic Anne Boleyns in movies and TV and how they have been representational of their generation’s views on ambitious women:
Anna Boleyn, 1920
Starring Henny Porten as “Anna” (a German production, the film seems to go with the continental spelling of most of the women’s names), this silent film picks up Anne’s story as she is returning to England from her years at the French court. She is depicted as sweet and innocent, in love with one Henry Norris, sent to meet her as she arrives from France, by her uncle, the scheming and ambitious Duke of Norfolk. Norris greets her at the dock upon her arrival, and they can barely contain their hormones as soon as she sets foot on dry land. The young lovebirds are discovered smooching as soon as they think they are alone, and generally this is treated as A-OK because Norris is seen as a decent match for her.
That is until fat, ugly, and aging dude-bro Henry VIII makes his appearance and moves in on the vulnerable Anne. To establish Henry’s shittiness, the film wastes no time bringing up the fact that he’s already all but ditched Queen Catherine and their adorable daughter, Princess “Marie,” to mack on young ladies while the dudes in his court cheer him on.
Anne is portrayed as the classic weak-willed ingenue, typical of early 20th-century feminine ideals. She practically pees herself with earnest fangirling over Queen Catherine, barely 15 minutes into the film, setting up some really awkward tension when Henry gives Catherine the boot and installs Anne in her place. That said, it appears as though this film was an attempt at rehabbing Anne’s reputation, writing her as more of a victim of Henry’s insatiable lust than either a fully realized human being or a power hungry home wrecker. She’s literally caught by Henry when an attendant closes the door on her train as she is making a hasty retreat when the king enters Catherine’s chamber. Like a small, helpless animal, as one IMDB reviewer put it, she’s “a victim caught in the jaws of a big (huge) baby.”
We are treated to plenty of scenes of Henry flat out assaulting Anne, so the film definitely pulls no punches in casting Henry as the villain. Except for one ballsy moment where Anne prevents Henry from throttling the court jester, she comes of as pretty bland and not at all the firecracker she supposedly was. Norris ends up blaming her for the king’s assault in full view of the court (hello, victim blaming!) but at the same time inducing the audience to feel sympathy for Anne’s predicament.
Costumes: Typical fare for this period of historical film in that the makeup is contemporary for the 1920s, and the costumes are mostly a mishmash of random 16th-century styles. There’s some interesting takes on 16th-century German costume that come through, particularly in Catherine’s wardrobe. I was also somewhat struck by how naturally the women moved in the long skirts when compared to how modern actresses have such issues with this (Keira “Stompy” Knightley, I’m looking at you), when I remembered that oh, yeah, these women probably grew up wearing long skirts.
Why you should watch it: It’s film history, yo!
If you have Amazon Prime, you can stream this classic for free on Instant Video.
Feminist Rating: 1/5 Burning Bras. Watch it for a good idea of what movies about women used to be like.
The Private Life of Henry VIII, 1933
I think this is supposed to be a comedy? Maybe? Charles Laughton plays fat bastard King Henry as about as lecherous and spoiled as they come. I’m assured by IMDB that this is intended to be funny and ironic, but if that’s the case, it really does not stand the test of time. Henry is a buffoon, and his court treats him like a giant toddler as he cycles through wives like dirty socks.
The film actually has very little to do with Anne Boleyn, as it opens on the day of her execution and Henry’s marriage to Wife #3, Jane Seymour. Merle Oberon plays Anne for about five minutes of screen time, and she’s undeniably lovely, but she’s not given a lot of script to work with, so there’s really not much to discuss here. The film quickly moves on to Henry’s “stupid girl” Jane (played by Wendy Barrie), who is an utter ditz with almost no redeeming qualities other than the fact that she’s pretty and gives the king a son and at least has the good sense to die before Henry tires of her.
Lurking in the background is Katherine Howard (Binnie Barnes), whom Henry is wooing between wives, and who seems to be a lot more conniving and ambitious than her historical counterpart was in real life. In fact, I found it weird that the film chose to make Katherine the central figure of the story, since all of the attributes she’s given by the script applied more accurately to Anne Boleyn, but hey, whatever. The highlight of the film is Henry’s brief marriage to Anne of Cleves (Elsa Lanchester), who outsmarts him in a game of cards into divorcing her and setting her up for life.
Costumes: Meh. Lots of weird hats, weird bustlines, 1930s makeup and hair.
Why you should watch it: Anne of Cleves. Everything else is just cringe-worthy.
Feminist Rating: 2/5 Burning Bras. The only really good feminist character in this is Anne of Cleves.
Anne of the Thousand Days, 1969
Full confession time, I love this film. It’s a classic, and for good reason, because it’s just that good. The writing is fantastic, the acting is amazing, and the costumes and set design are beautifully done (not historically accurate, but very very good, even if you factor in the random Elizabeth Taylor sighting in full winged eyeliner).
Geneviève Bujold just slays in this film as Anne Boleyn, playing her as though she was a first-wave feminist’s platonic ideal of a strong female character. Richard Burton plays Henry as a mature man in his prime, not the old, fat, despotic lech. He’s not exactly the good guy in this film, but he’s a lot more nuanced as a character than Henry is usually portrayed which counts for something. The way Burton plays the king is commendable, managing to show how Henry, who has never wanted for anything, could be so swept away by the feisty and brilliant Anne who manages to keep him at arm’s length.
After Henry makes short work of Henry Percy (Anne’s historically accurate suitor pre-Henry VIII), Anne begins to realize that she’s being pushed into Henry’s bed by her scheming Boleyn relations. In one memorable scene, Anne’s sister Mary, heavily pregnant with Henry’s child, snipes at Anne to not make the same mistake she did in becoming Henry’s mistress because, as she knows all too well, he’ll tire of her sooner, and she’ll be left with a consolation marriage and a bastard child. Anne, full of righteous indignation at the king’s breaking of her and Percy’s engagement, is determined to get even with the architect of this scheme, Cardinal Wolsey. She sees that dangling her virtue in front of the king is a sure-fire way to get in the position of power in order to destroy Wolsey.
As if that isn’t a good enough excuse for an interesting plot, the script goes and details how Anne eventually comes to love Henry, and just as she does, he decides she no longer fits his needs in a wife (too many stillbirths meant that Anne was likely no longer viable) and begins the process of repudiating her. Anne’s “thousand days” speech at the end of the film is beautiful as it is heartbreaking, as she admits to herself that in the short space of time she went from despising Henry to loving Henry while Henry went the reverse direction. The whole of that scene is so powerfully acted by Bujold that she pretty much obliterates Burton’s formidable presence, delivering what I consider one of the most satisfying feminist smackdowns ever filmed.
Costumes: As I said above, it’s beautifully costumed, but that doesn’t mean it’s one bit historically accurate. Overall, it does way better in the 16th-century silhouette department than most modern films, though it too suffers from contemporary hair and makeup which gives it a somewhat dated look now. The costumes had quite a career after this movie was filmed, being some of the more prolific recycled costumes in Hollywood.
Why you should watch it: Geneviève Bujold.
Watch Anne of the Thousand Days if you haven’t already seen it. Or watch it again if you have. It’s pure badass Anne Boleyn.
Feminist Rating: 5/5 Burning Bras. Fucking fierce, yo.
The Six Wives of Henry VIII, 1970
Keith Michell plays Henry VIII through every stage of his life, from young king to old, with the help of several layers of pancake makeup as his character ages from handsome young man to despotic old coot. Hey, it was the ’70s, and makeup technology wasn’t as advanced. Also our television screens weren’t as sharp and clear as they are today, so likely the effect of “HOLY CRAP THAT’S A LOT OF MAKEUP” wasn’t as pronounced as it is now. But enough about the makeup, Mitchell is a very good physical fit for Henry (according to IMDB, he was the exact height as Henry). Tall, fair, broad of shoulder, and deep of voice, you can easily believe that he’s Henry.
The entire series takes place over six episodes, which is roughly one episode per wife (though the next wife always appears in the middle of the current wife’s episode). So our first glimpse of Anne Boleyn is about a third of the way through the episode dedicated to Catherine of Aragon.
Anne Boleyn is played by Dorothy Tutin and is a pretty good physical match for what we know of Anne’s looks. She has dark hair, dark eyes, olive skin, and is not exactly pretty, but definitely interesting-looking. She stands out against the backdrop of pale English courtiers with her energy and vibrant personality barely contained. In one of her first scenes, Anne is shown antagonizing one of Catherine’s fellow ladies-in-waiting by daring to speak about Henry’s bastard son, the Duke of Richmond, and the fact that maaaaaybe the queen’s marriage isn’t as secure as everyone likes to think.
Costumes: The costumes are very good overall, with Henry’s being the best of the bunch (for obvious reasons… The series is really about him, after all). I’d go so far as to say that this was probably one of the best films focusing on Tudor clothing before Wolf Hall just in terms of overall silhouette, though of course the fabric choices often look very 1970s, and there are some obvious theatrical shortcuts (again, probably not as noticeable before high-def TV). Also, there’s the whole French Hood Headband issue again, mainly on Anne. I guess we need visual proof that she has dark hair?
Why you should watch it: Keith Michell.
Feminist Rating: 3/5 Burning Bras. This is more of a straight-up historical narrative than pushing any kind of revisionist agenda.
The Six Wives of Henry VIII, 2001
If you can deal with David Starkey spitting out his highly sexed-up narrative, then this documentary is not too bad at telling the story of Henry VIII and his wives using primary accounts written by those who witnessed The Great Matter happen first hand. I must confess, Starkey is not usually my cup of tea. Not only does his speaking style grate on my nerves (I still maintain that Mitchell & Webb were also spoofing him in this skit), his tendency to sensationalize and focus on sex, sex, and more sex makes him come across as a little bit creepy. But he is a respected Tudor historian, and his written work is actually quite good from an academic standpoint, so I’ll grudgingly give him a pass here.
The documentary uses actors in costume to give voice to the script, which is also not really my cup of tea when it comes to documentaries, but eh, if it gets the young people to pay attention, I guess I can survive. Julia Marsen plays Anne Boleyn, and she’s fine in the role. I mean, there’s nothing really outstanding about any of the “characters” since they just tend to break the fourth wall while writing a letter and narrate for the audience what they’re supposedly writing. It’s not BAFTA-worthy or anything.
I’m really only including this here because Marsen’s performance is often listed among the other actresses who have portrayed Anne. Also, there’s hardly any Anne in this documentary. Other than several close-up shots of her eyeballs, she hardly has any screen time apart from her execution.
Costumes: Not great. From the looks of things, they didn’t really have a big budget, and of course the costumes are the first thing that get cut back on in favor of FX and, I dunno, the truckloads of paper towels needed to clean up after Starkey finished spitting out a take? Anyway, yeah, not a fan.
Why you should watch it: Honestly, you could skip it. It’s not particularly remarkable, and David Starkey is annoying.
Feminist Rating: 2/5 Burning Bras. Starkey seriously needs to get his mind out of the gutter.
Henry VIII, 2003
This TV movie with Anne Boleyn was a bit ahead of its time, clearly paving the way for the likes of The Tudors, but passing largely unnoticed when it was released in 2003. Even the star power of Helena Bonham Carter as Anne didn’t really generate enough interest to make people take much notice and it sort of exists as a blip on the TV screen between big budget movies like Elizabeth (1998) and The Other Boleyn Girl (2008). Still, it’s worth a watch because Ray Winstone as Henry is one of the closest physical matches to the historical Henry of the 1520s-30s as we have gotten on film (though his “Welsh” accent was a little hard to get used to). Winstone is uncomfortably endearing as Henry, not exactly likable, but not hate-worthy either.
The film’s treatment of Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon is also pretty good. For one thing, they at least made her auburn haired (which is still not the fair-haired woman she was in real life, but whatever, I’ll take it), and she’s got way more backbone when dealing with Anne than she’s usually given on film. Catherine is even played by Assumpta Serna, a legit Spanish actress, which goes a long way in creating an authentic and believable Spanish princess who is fully prepared to fight for her marriage and her throne to the bitter end. One of these days I would love to see an entire film devoted to Catherine’s life, but until then, Henry VIII does an OK job giving her both a personality and a spine.
Bonham Carter completely dominates the first part of the series as Anne, which is unsurprising given that she’s easily the strongest actor in the entire production, but as much as I love her, I kept comparing her performance here with her performance 20 years earlier in Lady Jane and found it distracting. I guess it’s worth acknowledging that Jane Grey and Anne Boleyn are similar characters on film; like two sides of the same coin, one represents puritanical ideology and the other sensual ambition, but both were strong-willed and brilliant women.
The one weakness of this film is that it has some cringe-worthy overblown moments that threaten to derail its credibility. I actually burst out laughing when Buckingham’s beheading causes a fat stream of blood to shoot across the eyes of three witnesses to the execution. Like, seriously?
Costumes: Eh, not the best. A number of outfits make reappearances on The Tudors, and you can look them up on Recycled Movie Costumes to compare. Henry’s outfits are actually the best of the main cast, while the female cast suffer from varying levels of pretty-pretty-princess-itis. French hoods are used as headbands and loose hair is everywhere, unless you’re Dried Up Old Husk Catherine or a scheming Duchess of Norfolk.
Why you should watch it: Pour yourself a cocktail and enjoy the ride. It’s cringey good times.
Feminist Rating: 3.5/5 Burning Bras. Would have loved to have seen more of Catherine of Aragon going head-to-head with Anne.
The Tudors, 2007
We’ve podcasted The Tudors, so as far as the overall quality of the show, go download the podcast and give it a listen. Natalie Dormer plays a very pretty Anne. She’s probably the best cast of all the actors (Exhibit A: Jonathan Rhys Meyers and WHY, GOD, WHY WAS HE CAST AS HENRY???) since she actually sort of looks something like what Anne supposedly looked like. Well, aside from the fact that Dormer is undeniably pretty, and people never could agree completely as to whether or not Anne was actually good-looking or just barely passably attractive (even discounting the anti-Boleyn detractors).
Actually most of the cast looks as though they were hired for their modern conventional good looks, meaning that the entire cast looks like a 21st-century Cosmopolitan photo shoot, complete with bleach-blonde hair, side-swept bangs, injectable fillers in lips, and <10% body fat. So in a way, we’ve come full circle and arrived back at Anna Boylen standards of modern beauty overlaid on top of a historical film. It’s not that I want these actors to be ugly… It’s just so glaringly out of place to have totally modern-looking makeup and hair on someone wearing ye olde timey costumes.
Anyway, Anne. The writers paint her as about as cutthroat ambitious as you can get and not make your audience hate the character. The chemistry is actually good between Dormer and Rhys Meyers, which is saying something since JRM basically has zero chemistry with everyone in the show apart from Dormer. OK, we know the entire point of this show is to see these two Get It On and of course, it delivers. I felt like a teenager flipping through pages of my older cousin’s trashy romance novel to get to the “good parts.”
Costumes: Speaking of the costumes, yeah, not good. We’ve rehashed this a million times by now, so I won’t go flogging that particular dead horse. I’ll just say that it was pretty evident, by the costumer’s own admission, that they didn’t have a very big budget for the costumes in the first few seasons. By about season three, the costumes get better at least in terms of quality, though yeah, they never quite hit the mark on historical accuracy.
Why you should watch it: It’s zeitgeisty! All the kids are into it! Just make sure to do it drunk, because I’m pretty sure that’s the state the writers were in when they wrote the scripts.
So, there you go. Anne Boleyn in movies and TV. I know, I know, I didn’t cover The Other Boleyn Girl because I’m saving it for an upcoming post that will compare both the 2003 and 2008 versions. Stay tuned for more Anne Boleyn-y goodness!