Anne Boleyn has completely beguiled me since I was four years old. I remember vividly in the late 1980’s leaving a birthday party early with my mother to watch Anne of the Thousand Days on TV. I was as entranced with the film as she had been at my age. Living so close to Hever Castle, Anne’s ancestral home (used extensively in the film) bought history to life for me. I have visited Hever more times than I would care to confess in writing, and yet it still holds me in its grip, encouraging me to listen for conversations long past, hints of the events that happened between then and now. My idea of Anne was undoubtedly shaped by both this cultural representation of Anne, and my many visits to this site. But the Anne that Genevieve Bujold played varies vastly to the other incarnations of Anne in popular culture.
My Anne is not everyone’s Anne. In fact, I would go so far to say that she remains one of the most divisive characters of history. For many she is a home-wrecker, a whore, a promiscuous woman whose death was the price of her ambition. Others raise her so high in their estimation that her innocence is next to godliness. These divergences speak to the complexity of Anne’s character, the viewpoints of the varying sources by which she is understood, and the cultural climate in which they have been read.
Anne Boleyn’s first incarnations on screen silently portrayed Anne as a victim of Henry’s lust and greed. Laura Cowie (left) played Anne in the 1911 British silent film Henry VIII, whilst German star Henny Porten starred as the doomed queen in a landmark two-hour silent biopic in Ernest Lubitsch’s Anna Boleyn (1920). These films draw upon an historical narrative forged in the Victorian era, which championed Anne and other decapitated queen’s as fragile victims of a much married monarch. A particular influence was drawn from historical novels, such as The Tower of London, a novel by William Harrison Ainsworth serially published in 1840. Here it is possible to find such sentiment that describes the rich British soil being soaked with the best blood in England.
In 1933, Merle Oberon made a brief yet memorable appearance in The Private Life of Henry VIII. As the film begins on the day of Anne’s execution, she is given relatively little script, but recites many of the known phrases that Anne was reported to have said during her incarceration, such as her infamous ‘I have a little neck’ speech. Comedy plays an important juxtaposition to Anne’s grizzly fate, with sharp witted scenes between bickering executioners balancing the melodrama. The plot is also juxtaposed with the dressing of Anne’s successor, Jane Seymour, as Anne disrobes for the executioner. We do not doubt that Anne is going innocently to her end in this version, and yet we are also encouraged not to dislike her murderer, Henry, who is brash, irascible and yet somehow human. Oberon was so taken with her character that she adorned her apartment with paintings of her.
Anne was far from innocent in Hollywood’s 1953 version of Anne Boleyn. Afforded less screen time than Oberon, Elaine Stewart played a frivolous, ever-giggling strumpet, whose neck Henry VIII cannot help but fondle. The narrator advises us that Anne went to her end ‘with her lovers’, suggesting that she was guilty as charged. Her daughter’s subsequent struggles to stay alive throughout her early childhood are directly as a result of her mothers reputation, before triumphantly ascending to the throne as Good Queen Bess.
Vanessa Redgrave appeared briefly as Anne in the 1966 biopic of Thomas More, based on Robert Bolts award winning play A Man for All Seasons. As the film is focused on a very specific image of More, minus the private torture chamber that he had installed in his family home at Chelsea, other characters are portrayed in a somewhat harsh manner in order to sanctify More’s battle of conscience. Anne is again frivolous and giggling in this narrative, with no dialogue to possibly render her in a positive light.
It was only in 1969 that Maxwell Anderson’s 1948 play Anne of the Thousand Days was deemed appropriate for the screen, with its frank discussions of virginity, sex, incest and adultery. Genevieve Bujold played the title role of Anne, who reigned for one thousand days. She is no gold digger in this adaptation. Here Anne is a victim, loosing her youthful love at the request of a king intent on having sex with her. Her resistance is absolute, her only bargaining tool is the crown of England. In this sense, Anne is absolved of being a home-wrecker, and we sympathise with her plight. Although the film is somewhat long and plodding in parts, it contains a banging scene in which Anne get’s the last word with Henry. In what has been often referred to as a feminist scene, Anne’s defiance in the face of Henry’s ambition is quite wonderful.
Dorothy Tutin played a bold, fiery Anne in the BBC series The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1970). Focusing on her downfall, Anne is an innocent victim of her husband’s inability to remain faithful to her, and her inability to provide henry with sons. Tutin played a champion and headstrong Anne from the turmoil of her demise, and carried many similarities to the narrative provided in Anne of the Thousand Days. Anne did, however, scheme to snatch Henry from the loving grip of his first wife, and as such her downfall is seen in a slightly less rose-tinted light.
When the BBC series was turned into a film, Anne had something of a revision to her character. Here Anne is a home-wrecking ‘night crow’, who is far too flirtatious with them men at court. This is also the only portrayal of Anne to date that shows Anne with the sixth finger on one hand and moles on her neck that the sixteenth century catholic priest Nicholas Sander profligates in his history of Anne. She is jealous, spiteful, and rouses Henry into strangling her. We know she is innocent of incest and adultery, but her rapid downfall and death off screen leaves a cold and bitter remnant of the Anne of previous incarnations.
In her complete antithesis, Anne is angelically portrayed in the BBC 1979 adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Henry VIII. Anne is not here to fall from grace, indeed her end is never mentioned. Instead, she is the glorious mother of the Queen who had just given her name to an age.
Swinging to the very edges of the saintly side of Anne, Oona Kirsch’s Anne is drawn heavily from the ideals of a protestant paragon portrayed in Elizabethan propaganda, such as Fox’s Book of Martyrs. Here, Anne is the catalyst for the English Reformation. Worldly in religion through studying the works of William Tyndale, Anne presents Henry with the tools to annul his marriage. Again, Anne does not die in this incarnation, but remains a torch in the beacon of reform.
Helena Bonham Carter’s Anne owes much to Genevieve Bujold’s characterisation back in 1969. Here Anne is more human than the saintly portrayals of more earlier productions. Anne is most definitely a victim in this version, with Henry shown raping her in a rather distressing scene. Anne is most the innocent party in this version, and her execution scene is particularly gruesome (if not historically accurate)
In the first adaptation of Phillipa Gregory’s popular but controversial The Other Boleyn Girl, Anne is a particularly cruel and guilty character. Not only is she guilty of having sex with her brother, but she torments her loving sister Mary, stealing her child. Many fans of Anne objected to this plot-line, however it gained new audiences with their own idea of who Anne was.
When Hollywood adapted Gregory’s novel onto the silver screen, Anne was still as viscous, but remained innocent of incest. Although in desperation she is shown trying to entice her brother into impregnating her, the couple collapse into tears due to their inability to save her life. In this sense, Hollywood has invited us to care about Anne at the last, and although her execution scene is particularly powerful, this turn of emotional stance is somewhat too late in the script.
In the most recent portrayal of Anne, Natalie Dormer was so determined to revise the Anne of series one, a scheming, sexual being, that we end up with two Anne’s. The Anne of series two contained narratives pertaining to her faith and charity, and her belief in the right of her ascendency. Although this change of character therefore seems jarring, it tells us so much of the divergent ways in which Anne has been seen throughout history. The ‘fandom’ response to Natalie’s Anne is testament to her enduring and multi-faceted characterisations throughout history.
The mantle has now been past to Claire Foy, whose Anne Boleyn will be premièred on BBC two tonight. Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall sees Anne through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, who many believe both made and unmade Anne. It will be interesting to see the response to a colder, more calculated Anne in the light of Dormer’s revision. Anne has endured almost five hundred years of scrutiny, and has appeared many times and in many guises throughout film history. So who is your favourite?