Revisiting history is a good thing. The dusty stories we learn in middle and high school in this country are rarely nuanced, updated, or contextualized with the lens of society’s understanding of how patriarchy or systemic bias influenced the original telling of events at the time. And it only gets worse when we’re learning about the stories of the world outside our borders. All of this is why AMC+’s airing of the limited series, Anne Boleyn, arrives when we could all use a fresh look at King Henry VIII’s second wife, mostly remembered today for getting beheaded by him.
Written by Eve Hedderwick Turner and directed by Lynsey Miller, this three-part series (which premiered on the UK’s Channel 5 earlier this year) stars Jodie Turner-Smith (the first Black actress to take the role) as Tudor Queen Anne Boleyn, and the narrative is refreshingly framed from the Queen’s point of view. While she reined as Queen of England for three years, the series is laser-focused on the last five months of her life, in which her position with Henry (Barry Ward) and in his court’s esteem dramatically dissolves, leading to her eventually being charged with treason, adultery, and incest with her brother, George Boleyn.
With the exception of Starz’s The Spanish Princess, if you think back to any film or TV series featuring King Henry VIII, he’s almost certainly portrayed with an outsized, mercurial personality that dominates the focus of the story in which he resides. His six doomed wives are demure victims often used as pawns for his ego, sexual impulsivity, and obsession with siring a male heir. What Anne Boleyn and Turner-Smith do so well in this series is make Anne a far more defined woman with her own ambition, intelligence, and keen strategic savvy.
Though the short series is something of a slow burn, from the very first episode Turner-Smith introduces us to a woman who is at ease with her Queen status. She’s imperious, confident, and a worthy player in knowing how to navigate the governmental and sexual politics of her husband. Pregnant with her fourth child after she miscarried twice (having previously gave birth to a daughter, Elizabeth, which severely disappointed Henry), Anne also knows her value is contingent on the child inside her being a boy, as she sees her husband’s eye wandering towards pious Jane Seymour (Lola Petticrew). And she becomes aware that allied court advisors, like the increasingly smarmy Thomas Cromwell (Jamael Westman), are only too happy to reduce her influence on the king in matters of religion and relationships with countries like France and Spain.
Packing in a lot of context, history, and pivotal events in Anne’s life makes the initial episode a bit bloated with exposition heavy dialogue, and some very on-the-nose foreshadowing moments for future plot turns. Plus, for those who love period pieces to drool over the costuming and production value, Anne Boleyn is relatively restrained in portraying opulence via the sets and costumes. The main Greenwich Palace locale is minimalist, with the most exotic location shooting mostly near ponds and gardens. It’s really Anne’s dresses that grab the eye throughout, featuring beautiful fabrics of teal with jewelry accents giving her a regal glow as she’s framed by the natural light coming from windows and alcoves. Everyone else is functional and era appropriate, so it’s not going to dazzle the peepers like a Downton Abbey or Bridgerton.
And that’s ok because this is really all about Anne. Once Turner-Smith gets past the business of showing the many mercurial shades to her character’s persona in the first episode, she’s then allowed to attain a more measured balance with Anne. The moments that give the audience an intimate view of Anne really shine, like when she provocatively confronts Jane about the nature of her relationship with Henry while on a private walk, or her portrayal of the devastating aftermath of Anne’s labor, where the sympathy elicited for the character sweeps the audience into the tale far more than the script can do alone. In fact, the entire series is very much Jodie’s rich playground to own, and it works because of her engaging and passionate embodiment of the Queen. Just as history accounted for, Anne was a woman who suffered for being smarter than the patriarchy wanted her to be. The more she asserted her values, wants and needs, wrong or right, the more the court and the political players found reasons to dislike her and resent her ambition outside of breeding. And Turner-Smith brings that struggle to life in a compelling way.
The limited series then continues with a lot of contextual table setting for Anne’s life after the death of her child. It truly is a revelation to see Anne portrayed having depression, but also a galvanizing pragmatism about her weakening position within her own household. Still bleeding post-labor, she literally straps herself into a gown so she can be proactive in salvaging her marriage. There’s no shrinking violet Anne in this story, and it builds a new appreciation for how much she had to overcome despite her doomed destiny.
All of it ultimately comes to a head in the finale, the most powerful of the trio of episodes. It tracks the last three days of Anne’s life in the Tower of London. Here she is defiant in the face of Cromwell’s vindictive campaign to rid her from Henry’s life. A constant thorn in his side, their war of wills is an intriguing subplot through the whole piece that surprisingly becomes the emotional crux of the whole story because of the karmic ripple effect it has on both of their lasting legacies in history. Henry is one thing, but their nemesis-level battle with one another is really the personification of Anne’s struggle in life. And Turner-Smith plays Anne’s last days with powerful resonance. She allows Anne to be laid bare to only a few, like her lady’s maid, Madge (Thalissa Teixeira) and her brother, George (Paapa Essiedu), so we do get a sense of what her fear must have been like. But she also has to dig deep to be a model matriarch during an exceptional rendering of her sham trial, and even in front of her priest, who uses her faith to guilt her into signing an annulment to ensure her daughter’s safety. That she is betrayed by every man around her is telling, and not a shock for this particular moment in time. But Anne Boleyn and Turner-Smith make the dusty, distant history feel immediate and pertinent once more.
Anne Boleyn will air weekly starting Thursday, December 9th on AMC+.
Tara Bennett is a Los Angeles-based writer covering film, television and pop culture for publications such as SFX Magazine, Total Film, SYFY Wire and more. She’s also written books on Sons of Anarchy, Outlander, Fringe and the official history of Marvel Studios coming in 2021. You can follow her on Twitter @TaraDBennett.
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