Anne Boleyn on the Big Screen, plus...., is she the original gay icon?!

I would say with some confidence that more films, tv shows, books and plays have been made about Anne Boleyn than the other five of Henry VIII's wives put together. Quite simply, Anne stands out. I can't think of a better way of articulating this than referencing the absolutely superb West End stage show Six. For anyone unaware of the show, Six features the six Queens of Henry VIII competing in a X Factor style competition to determine which of them suffered the most by being married to the King. The show is camp, enormously witty and actually had a phenomenal amount of historical accuracy woven in to the lyrics of the songs. Before Anne Boleyn’s big number "Don't lose your Head", the other five Queens sing a short introduction to her with the words "the one you've been waiting for, the one you've been waiting for, the mystery, the one who changed history, the mystery, the temptress". That short introduction tells us everything - Anne is the most exciting of the Queens, the other Queens know it, and she's the one people are most eager to hear about. But why so? Why is Anne Boleyn covered so much more in film and television than the other wives of Henry VIII?


Even in series which tell the whole story of Henry VIII and his many Queens, the character of Anne Boleyn is given greater prominence, sometimes through a bigger name playing the role. This is most overtly obvious in the 2003 miniseries Henry VIII , starring a very cockney sounding Henry VIII played by the otherwise superb Ray Winstone. Anne Boleyn is played by Helena Bonham Carter, a two-time Academy Award nominee and fully fledged A-List Hollywood star. Emilia Fox who played Jane Seymour is undoubtedly a successful actress, as is the then unknown Emily Blunt who played Catherine Howard, but neither at the time were close to the same notoriety as Bonham Carter. Of the six actresses she was the most well known and she was cast as Anne Boleyn. The producers clearly knew that they needed a bigger name for Boleyn, therefore also suggesting that to them, her part in the story carries the most weight. The cast of Six and Winstone, Bonham Carter can be seen below.


Anne even turns up as a reference point in film and television not set in the 16th century - many have spotted that two portraits of Anne Boleyn hang on the walls of Hogwarts in the Harry Potter film series. She is also mentioned twice in the superb Netflix Original Series The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina - Sabrina is performing exorcism rituals and calls upon the names of famous historical fallen witches for guidance. Both of these clearly referencing the unfounded accusations of witchcraft that have plagued Anne Boleyn for centuries.


After Anne Boleyn's downfall and execution in 1536, her reputation was considerably tarnished, and would remain so until the accession of her daughter Elizabeth in 1558. During her daughter's reign the general view of Anne Boleyn softened considerably and she would grow to be viewed as something of a romantic victim, destroyed by a brutal tyrant for a husband. In 18th and 19th century books she would often be referred to as strong-willed, engaging, beautiful and fiercely intelligent. She has also been described as a feminist icon, a woman centuries ahead of her time and is generally viewed by academics and historians in a sympathetic light. Some historians have even gone so far as to call Anne "the most influential and important queen consort England has ever had" - this view being driven by Anne acting as the catalyst in what would become the English reformation.


There are of course some more critical observers of her story, most notably American academic Retha Warnicke. She seems to believe that Anne was at the centre of an illicit homosexual clique within Henry VIII's court and would have happily carried her brother's child if it meant she could give Henry the much desired male heir. Suffice to say, Retha's absurd views are largely ignored by the vast majority of historians as nothing more than unfounded nonsense. Philippa Gregory, another one not known for huge historical accuracy has certainly fanned the flames around the incest charge. Her novel The Other Boleyn Girl, a story primarily about Mary Boleyn, positions Anne as a villain who does consider sleeping with her brother to procure a son, before they mutually decide against the idea....(insert eye-roll emoji here!).


Anne Boleyn first appears in a speaking film in The Private Life of Henry VIII. The film was released in 1933 and was met with considerable praise at the time, especially for Charles Laughton who would go on to win the Academy Award for best actor for his turn as King Henry. Anne is played by Merle Oberon and opens on the day of Anne Boleyn's execution. Because of this, the performance is limited to just a few minutes of screen time, but even so many of the classic Anne Boleyn quotes that we have come to expect - "Anne Sans Tete", "I have a little neck" make an appearance. Looking at the film now from a 2020 perspective, it is laughably melodramatic - as Anne mounts the scaffold she looks around and say's "what a lovely day", better still, one observer in the crowd of Anne's execution exclaims to a woman in front of her "excuse me Madame, would you remove your hat, we can't see the block", in a voice so clipped that you'd think you were watching a young Queen Elizabeth II. It was of course a product of it's time, but is so far removed from modern day storytelling that it's somewhat hard to take it seriously, even if the costumes and acting were themselves superb.


Anne would next be portrayed on screen by Elaine Stewart in the 1953 film, Young Bess. The film once again starred Charles Laughton as Henry VIII, but as can be surmised by the title was primarily focussed on the early life of Elizabeth I. Anne Boleyn would also appear in a supporting role in the 1966 film A Man for All Seasons which tells the story of Sir Thomas More, this time played by a then relatively unknown Vanessa Redgrave.

Oberon and Redgrave can be seen below from their respective films:


Anne Boleyn would not appear as a leading character in film until 1969, when Anne of the Thousand Days was released. Starring Geneviève Bujold as Anne Boleyn and the Hollywood titan that was Richard Burton as Henry VIII, this film is considered by many to be the most important and influential retelling of Anne's story. Bujold's performance was widely acclaimed. She would win the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Motion Picture Drama, and would also be nominated for both the Academy Award and BAFTA Award for Best Actress. She remains the only actress nominated for an Oscar for playing Anne Boleyn. For me her performance is the quintessential Anne and the one I consider to be easily the best. Almost anyone you speak to over the age of 30 would normally say the same! Scene's from the film can be seen below.


Everything about Thousand Day's is spot on. The cast were amazing, the set design superb. The costuming in particular is perfection and won the Academy Award in this category. If only costume designers on HBO's The Tudors or the absolute joke that was Reign would have checked this film out, rather than apparently looking in the window display of Topshop for inspiration...(I jest, but come on, Reign is laughable). I, along with countless other fans of Thousand Days even overlook the entirely fictitious scene in the tower just before Anne Boleyn's execution, because it is just so good. She delivers a speech that absolutely tears Henry apart, hitting him where it hurts, knowing that she will ultimately have the last laugh.


"But Elizabeth was yours, watch her as she grows, she's yours, she's a Tudor! Get yourself a son on that sweet pale girl if you can and hope that he will live, but Elizabeth shall reign after you, yes, Elizabeth, child of Anne the whore and Henry the bloodstained lecher shall be Queen! And remember this Henry: Elizabeth shall be a greater queen than any King of yours! She shall rule a greater England than you could ever have built! Yes, MY Elizabeth SHALL BE QUEEN, and my blood will have been well spent".


It's a huge crowd pleasing moment, and despite being completely inaccurate (Anne last saw Henry the day before she was arrested), you can't help but cheer her on. I reiterate again, Bujold is acting opposite RICHARD FRIGGING BURTON! But she utterly steals the show - for me she is THE portrayal of Anne Boleyn to beat. It would appear the great lady herself agrees. When asked in an interview whether there was anyone who she thought could do the part justice, she responded boldly "No one, Anne is mine".


The following year in 1970, the BBC produced a mini-series called The Six Wives of Henry VIII starring Australian actor Keith Michell as Henry VIII. Anne would be played by Dame Dorothy Tutin, and here was another example of Anne getting more screen time over the other wives. Despite there being six episodes for the six wives, Anne turn's up half way through Catherine of Aragon's episode. Bear in mind that Henry and Catherine's were married for 24 years, surely if anyone would get more screen time it would be Catherine, but no, by the end of the episode we are already at the point at which Anne is on the throne and has given birth to Elizabeth. Conversely, episode 2, Anne's central episode, focuses solely on her downfall, a period from start to finish of just 17 days! Tutin does a great job in portraying Anne and would be nominated for a TV BAFTA for best actress. It isn't the most sympathetic portrayal, in fact at times her Anne Boleyn is downright unpleasant, but the trial scene was excellent, even if the execution scene was appalling - three words - block and axe (eye roll). The main issue of the series is the obviously limited budget, most overtly clear in the poorly executed set design.


Two years later in 1972, the mini-series was made in to a feature length film once again starring Keith Michell. On the subject of Keith Michell, if Bujold is the Anne to beat, Michell is the Henry. He was magnificent. A film depicting the whole of Henry's reign obviously has quite a mountain to climb, and unusually it is Anne Boleyn's story that is the most overtly trimmed down. Whilst she is once again played by the biggest name amongst the Queens (an excellent and stunning Charlotte Rampling), the film chooses to highlight utterly inconsequential and unfounded beliefs about Anne Boleyn, such as the old tale of her having a deformed sixth finger, whilst almost entirely skating over the biggest part of Anne's whole story - her downfall. We see Anne flirting at a joust with Henry looking on in suspicion and subsequently ordering her arrest. We then jump to Cranmer and Cromwell talking, and being interrupted by a canon going off in the background to let us know that the Queen is dead. Why the film makers chose to go down this route I'll never know, but it does I believe contribute to the film being largely forgettable. Tutin and Rampling can be seen below.


Clearly the 1980s and 1990s were something of a Tudor black hole in film and television. Anne Boleyn was not depicted again until 2001 when she was played by Julia Marsen in David Starkey's documentary series The Six Wives of Henry VIII. Two years later, in 2003 we would see Anne twice in one year. The first version of The Other Boleyn Girl was made as a low-budget tv movie, so low budget in fact that I can barely watch it. It feels like the sort of thing you'd see from a sixth-form media studies student tasked with making a short film (I speak as an ex-media studies sixth form student!). It was followed not long after by the aforementioned Henry VIII starring Ray Winstone and Helena Bonham Carter. Beyond the casting choice which I discuss at the top of this post, the two part series was once more an example of Anne dominating the storyline, not that I mind, especially when she's being played by my favourite actress. Practically the whole first episode focuses on her story and ends with Anne's execution. Conversely, episode 2 covers off all four of Henry's final marriages in one sitting. Reviews of the series were highly positive, particularly towards Bonham Carter. As I hinted however, Ray Winstone's overt cockney accent was viewed by many as something of a detractor.


In 2007, we were introduced to Natalie Dormer and The Tudors. The Tudors told the story of Henry VIII's reign across four seasons, with Dormer taking on the role of Anne Boleyn. This series is another example of Anne Boleyn being the most prominent wife in Henry's story - their relationship begins half way through season 1 and is the dominant storyline of the whole of season 2, ending in Anne's execution. The Tudors was enjoyable enough, but was let down by significant historical inaccuracies and poor costuming. Critics were however very warm to Dormer's portrayal of Anne Boleyn and commented that her exit left a huge hole in season 3. I myself did not care for Natalie Dormer's Anne Boleyn. She is a fine actress, I loved her in Game of Thrones and the Hunger Games, but for me she just did not deliver as Anne Boleyn. She didn't look right, sound right and overacted appallingly at times. I know I am in the minority here though.


There is one scene in the Tudor's that I absolutely adored however. It's a small fleeting thing and doesn't even depict Anne Boleyn, but she is somehow utterly present in the scene and does what no other depiction of Henry in his later years has done thus far. It's in the very first episode of Season 4 - "Moment of Nostalgia". On the face of it, this episode title is derived from a conversation between Henry and his closest friend, Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk about the fact that their youths are now a thing of the past. I however see the title more elegantly displayed in another scene. Catherine Howard invites Princess Elizabeth to court where she is presented to her father. Elizabeth impresses her father with her poise and elegance, and for a fleeting moment you can see in Henry's eyes that he is thinking back to her mother and how much he had once loved her - a true moment of nostalgia. It is beautifully done and highlights what I have always believed, that Anne was the wife Henry truly loved the most.


2008 saw the release of a big budget version of The Other Boleyn Girl. This time featuring Natalie Portman as Anne Boleyn, Scarlett Johansson as Mary Boleyn and Eric Bana as Henry VIII. An undeniably sumptuous film with perfect costuming and set design, the story is let down by Philippa Gregory's own version of "events" which is so far removed from fact that is might as well be a totally made up story. With that said, Portman does a great job and the overall look of the film is highly commendable.


In 2015, we were treated to the absolutely sublime Wolf Hall. A six part mini-series based on Hilary Mantel's then two book chronicle of Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell would be played by Sir Mark Rylance, arguably the most intuitive living actor on the planet. Opposite him you had Damian Lewis as Henry VIII and Claire Foy in her breakthrough role as Anne Boleyn. Foy would of course go on to play Queen Elizabeth II in Netflix's staggeringly excellent The Crown. In Claire Foy's hands, we finally had someone to rival Geneviève Bujold. Foy was simply superb. The typically hard to please Guardian heaped praise on Foy, calling her "Wolf Hall's perfectly complex Anne Boleyn". Complex just about cuts it. From the moment we meet Anne in episode 1, we are presented with a woman desperately trying to maintain her grip on an oily rope. Her behaviour is often cruel and spoilt, resulting in many ardent Boleyn fan's disliking Mantel's depiction of Anne. I however see it differently. Here we see Anne Boleyn through the eye's of Cromwell. We are seeing HIS Anne, HIS take on her, and her sometimes bad behaviour is driven by the monumental insecurity about her position. For me the core storyline of Wolf Hall isn't Cromwell and Henry, or Henry and Anne, it's "Cremuel" and Anne. Their once solid partnership gives way to bitter resentment, particularly on Anne's part, and ultimately we're left with a situation of it being Cromwell's neck on the line or hers.


Anne Boleyn will next be seen on screen in 2021, this time being portrayed by Jodie Turner-Smith. Turner-Smith's casting caused considerable debate owing to her being black. I myself don't have any issue with this as Turner-Smith is an excellent actress and there's precedent for non-white actresses playing Anne Boleyn - Merle Oberon was of Indian descent for example. I am excited to see what she does with this new drama and I will definitely watch it. It was however an undeniably bold move by the producers of the series, and I worry that this strays in to the realms of misconception on what true "diversity" means. Diversity should not mean that we force non-white talent in to all white stories and spaces. Surely it is far more important that we diversify our storytelling and tell the stories of less recognised figures. Sacrilege though it may seem, we don't need another telling of Anne Boleyn's story. It's been done, many many times! Why not tell of the many incredible stories about non-white Queens such as Queen Arwa of Yemen or Queen Take Ranavalona I of Madagascar. These stories would be fresh, authentic and ultimately deliver diversity in a way that feels genuine.


As I also mention in the heading of this blog, it has occurred to me recently that Anne Boleyn appears to have something of a underground gay following to rival the likes of Cher and Kylie Minogue. I myself am gay, and many of the other men I know who are fascinated by Anne's story are also homosexual. I don't believe this is mere coincidence, so over the last few days I have tried to understand why this would be and ultimately what is driving this affinity between Anne Boleyn and the gay community. I would love to say that I have come up with Einstein worthy conclusions, but alas from everything I can tell, Anne Boleyn is adored by gay men in particular for the very same reasons that the likes of Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey and Joan Rivers also stir such adoration with the LGBTQ+ community. I hate to generalise, but on the whole gay men love a survivor. For obvious reasons this title cannot be applied to Anne Boleyn in the main, but she was undoubtedly a woman who stood firm in the face of adversity, and ultimately had the last laugh. She was fierce and saw herself not merely as a pawn for the advancement of men but as a credible political creature, capable of as much as her male counterparts. Her tragic end of course plays in to the drama which undoubtedly sparks respect from the gay community. She was a woman who sought out her future, and was determined to be the mistress of her own destiny. She is also unequivocally camp, even if she didn't know it at the time. Think about it in the simplest terms - Anne Boleyn - bad bitch, Jane Seymour - basic bitch. Here we had a woman who knew what she wanted and ran with it. She was stylish, chic, elegant, learned and ultimately determined to carve her own way in the world, despite living in a time of staggering patriarchy.


The affinity with gay men I think ultimately comes from a place of not being "the norm". Anne Boleyn was not the norm in her time, indeed this is what first attracted Henry to her. She utterly overturned everything. She did what no other woman had done before, superseding a Queen, a real Queen, with staggeringly better connections than herself, but she still managed it. Her tragic end at the hands of a man further solidifies her position as a gay icon. Here we had a woman who was determined to charter her own path, only to be cut down by a man so ostensibly inferior to her in practically all walks of life. Her many depictions over the years in film and television I think add to the overall narrative of Anne as a cult classic, purely by the actresses who've taken her on - Vanessa Redgrave, Helena Bonham Carter, Natalie Portman etc. We also have to be cognisant of the fact that Anne was the mother of Elizabeth I. Viewed by many as England's greatest ruler, Anne being Elizabeth's mother plays in to another arguably admired stereotype by the gay community - that of the independent woman whose successes are not measured by the man she chooses to marry, but by remaining firmly independent and doing things based on her own beliefs.


When I set out to write this particular post, I wanted to try and understand why Anne Boleyn has always been the most fascinating of Henry's wives and thus the object of the most attention. Ultimately I think it comes down to the fact that we are all suckers for a good romance but equally cant look away from a scenario in which someone is going through a catastrophic fall from grace. Quite simply, Anne stirs the most emotion because her story is the most emotional. Couple that with the fact that she remains so mysterious and you have the perfect mould for an ongoing enigma. Anne Boleyn is undoubtedly my favourite historical figure. She has fascinated me for years and will continue to do so for many more I am sure. Her wide ranging portrayals in film and television have undoubtedly strengthened the public's appetite and have undeniably been the catalyst for many people to become enthralled with both Tudor history and her story in general.


For me, Anne is and will always be the most enigmatic and fascinating of Henry VIII's six Queen consorts. I am sure that many more depictions of her will make their way to our screens over the next years. I just hope that they attempt to deliver something new and genuinely engaging.


Written by Adam Pennington

4th December 2020