I’m embarking on a deviation from my usual entries and going straight for one that interests me (it’s my blog and I do what I want). Today: a case study in depictions of Anne Boleyn — the most notorious and enigmatic of Henry VIII’s queens.
Anne Boleyn (c. 1501 – 1536) was only the second commoner to be elevated to the throne of Queen of England (the first was Henry VIII’s maternal grandmother, Elizabeth Woodville). She was described as being no great beauty (her skin was sallow rather than a fashionable pale, her hair and eyes were very dark, and she had moles on her body), but she possessed an undefinable charisma that made her irresistible to some of the most famous and powerful men of the age — the poet Thomas Wyatt, Henry Percy of Northumberland, Francois I of France, and of course, Henry VIII, who changed the religion of an entire nation in order to free himself from his first marriage for her sake. Her marriage to Henry VIII lasted just three years and was a tumultuous, unhappy one. She was unable to hold her tongue and look the other way when he had affairs, and worse, she was unable to give him a living son, producing only a daughter, Elizabeth. On May 19, 1536, Anne Boleyn was executed for the crime of adultery, which she was said to have committed with numerous men of Henry’s court, as well as her brother, George Boleyn.
I’m going to compare the Annes of five films or TV series depicting her relationship with Henry — Anne of the Thousand Days (1964), The Six Wives of Henry VIII (the 1970 BBC miniseries), The Other Boleyn Girl (the 2003 BBC film), The Tudors (2007-2010), The Other Boleyn Girl (2009). This will not merely be rating the actresses, but rating the quality of the script they were given to act, and the piece in which they acted.
Genevieve Bujold — Anne of the Thousand Days
Genevieve’s Anne is fresh-faced and youthful when she is first introduced in a flashback, as a headstrong teenager, and she doesn’t age much during the film. Part of this is due to Bujold’s beauty — it is difficult to imagine her as “that thin old woman” as the Spanish ambassador snidely referred to Anne late in her life. She has Anne’s long dark hair and the dark eyes, but her skin is pale, unlike Anne’s darker hue.
20% Sinner, 80% Saint
Genevieve’s Anne is intensely likeable. She is headstrong, beautiful, passionate, and tender to those she loves. To those she doesn’t, she is cutting and cruel, in words, but not actions. She is probably the nicest of all the Annes here — though she does eventually harass Henry to execute Katherine of Aragon and Princess Mary, for the most part she leaves Katherine strictly alone. She is a loving mother to Elizabeth.
Relationship with Henry: Although Genevieve’s Anne is determined to not love the King when he first destroys her relationship with Henry Percy, she eventually grows to fall deeply in love with him. Their relationship shatters, and the blame falls squarely on Henry, making Anne appear genuine and blameless. Even in her last days, she professes her love for him.
Relationships with Other Men: Anne has a passionate affair with Henry Percy at the beginning of the film. She loves no other man but Henry. Her relationship with her brother George is watered-down at best, which makes the charge of incest extremely unbelievable. Her relationships with Henry Norris and Mark Smeaton are, at best, hinted at.
Execution Scene: Unfortunately, Genevieve as Anne is forbidden to make Anne’s famous execution speech. She goes to the scaffold white-faced and silent, giving the executioner one terrified glance before her head comes off.
Dorothy Tutin — The Six Wives of Henry VIII
Dorothy’s Anne is near to spot on! She is not the classic beauty of the Tudor age — she is slender, dark-haired, sallow-skinned, dark-eyed, small-breasted. She is missing the moles, which is the only complaint, and it’s such a mild one. Appearance-wise she is nearly perfect.
75% Sinner, 25% Saint
Dorothy as Anne is unapologetically ambitious. She is not in love with Henry and makes no bones about it. From day one she is eager to snatch the crown, and is almost infuriatingly public about her goal. She is slightly more sympathetic in Part II, where she is the sad, neglected and lonely queen, anxiously watching as Henry flits from one mistress to the next. Her relationship with Elizabeth is merely hinted at.
Relationship with Henry: There is nothing really stand-out about Dorothy’s Anne’s relationship to Henry. It is a classic case of man-pursues, man-achieves-his-goal, man-moves-on. She does not really love him, and it shows.
Relationship to Other Men: N/A. Henry Percy and Thomas Wyatt are distinctly missing, which only serves to damn Anne further, as she is depicted as a cunning and soulless woman intent on only ambition.
Execution Scene: Lacking. Dorothy is much more powerful in the trial scene, which is more historically-accurate than that in Anne of the Thousand Days. The execution scene is overdramatic and staged indoors. Dorothy lays her head on the block and is shown to be executed with an axe, which is inaccurate.
Jodhi May — The Other Boleyn Girl (BBC)
Appearance: While some of her compatriots go too far into beauty, I’m sorry to say that Jodhi May’s Anne is too far in the opposite direction. She is just too plain, and lacking in charisma, for anyone to imagine a king selecting her from all the other women of the court. Her hair and eyes are dark, her skin is pale.
70% Sinner, 20% Saint: Though Jodhi’s Anne begins the film by saying her one wish in life is to find true love, she is quickly disillusioned by the failure of her betrothal to Henry Percy, and horns in on Henry’s affections, not for any love she bears him, but because she wants to upstage her sister Mary. There is sexual tension between her and Henry, but very little true affection.
Relationship to Henry: Jodhi taunts Henry, yells at him, constantly chides him, but gives him very little reason to return to her. Their relationship is tenacious but possesses none of the loving little moments that made Anne so irresistible to Henry for so long.
Relationship to Other Men: Thomas Wyatt is omitted. Henry Percy is shown as Anne’s great love in the beginning of the film. To my disgust, the BBC adaptation is the only film that gives credence to the rumor that Anne Boleyn and her brother, George, had an incestuous affair. Mark Smeaton’s presence is incidental and forgettable.
Execution Scene: Omitted in favor of showing present-day tourists ogling the execution site in the Tower of London.
Natalie Dormer – The Tudors
Appearance: Natalie is STUNNING. She has the dark hair, the sallow complexion, even the moles…but those BLUE EYES! I don’t understand why they didn’t give her dark contacts. Also, for a woman who was supposed to be unconventionally beautiful, Natalie is just too gorgeous. She does age up well, it is believable that years have passed from her first introduction to her execution scene. And she just oozes charisma.
85% Sinner, 15% Saint: Natalie’s Anne is DEVIOUS. She moves into Henry’s affections to advance her family, not because she is in love with him, although she finds herself feeling affection for him as time goes on. She plots to poison Bishop Fisher, talks Henry into throwing off the yokes of his trusted ministers, threatens her friends and family, banishes her sister from court, and even tries to get Henry to kill his former wife and daughter. Yet she still finds a way to make you pity her.
Relationship with Henry: Though initially not one of affection, Natalie’s Anne does fall in love with Henry and is deeply wounded when he falls out of love with her. There is a particularly violent sex scene late in season 2 that shows their true feelings for each other, perhaps.
Relationship with Other Men: Henry Percy is omitted. She has a sexual relationship with Thomas Wyatt, shown in flashbacks. She flirts with Mark Smeaton and threatens Henry Norris when he flirts with her. Her relationship to George is innocent, but perceived as otherwise by her maids.
Execution Scene: The best one. Natalie goes to the scaffold head high, delivers her speech, and kneels bravely, with terrified eyes. Perfection.
Natalie Portman — The Other Boleyn Girl (2008)
Appearance: Like Natalie Dormer, Natalie Portman looks the part but is just too damn pretty. Her skin is the right tone, hair is the right color, she even has the brown eyes. Sadly, she doesn’t possess Dormer’s charisma. Her Anne falls somewhat flat.
80% Sinner, 20% Saint: Portman’s Anne is driven by an impulse to upstage her sister Mary, whom she feels upstaged her previously. She does not love the King. She is intent on grabbing whatever she can. You pity her, but it’s more for her sad fate than what she has deserved.
Relationship to Henry: No real sexual tension whatsoever. Plus there’s a horrible rape scene which was breaking terribly with Henry’s true character.
Relationship to Other Men: Henry Percy and Thomas Wyatt are omitted. Portman’s Anne tries to convince her brother to have an affair with her so she may become pregnant and ensure her position, but they do not actually sleep together.
Execution Scene: Horrid. An Anne who sobs on the scaffold is no true Anne at all. While it is understandable, it did not happen.
1. Natalie Dormer
2. Genevieve Bujold
3. Dorothy Tutin
4. Jodhi May
5. Natalie Portman
Agree? Disagree? Let me know in the comments!