Directed By: Charles Jarrott
Written By: Bridget Bolland, John Hale, Richard Sokolove (based on the play Anne of the Thousand Days by Maxwell Anderson)
Starring: Richard Burton, Genevieve Bujold, Anthony Quayle John Colicos
A natural film to compare Charles Jarrott’s Anne of the Thousand Days to would be the 1966 film (and 1967 Best Picture winner) A Man for All Seasons. Both films focus on the story of King Henry VIII and his pursuit of marriage to Anne Boleyn, both lavish recreations of 16th Century England. But perhaps it’s telling that in spite of their strong affinities it doesn’t seem right to refer to Anne of the Thousand Days as a biographical drama as one would the 1966 tale of Thomas More. Rather you would refer to it as a costume drama. A Man for All Seasons was a drama first, bolstered by its production design, Anne of the Thousand Days has its emphasis inverted, trading its drama in for period detail, and as a result never quite strikes the human notes that made its predecessor so poignant.
Where the film is strong, beyond its sumptuous designs, is in its rendering of the King and Queen, both wonderfully played with powerful mercuriality by Richard Burton and Genevieve Bujold.
Richard Burton finely textures the character of Henry through his performance. The film opens with the King pondering with ambivalence the execution of Anne as she has supposedly committed adultery against him, and it is an ambivalence which proliferates the character throughout.
In the hands of Burton, Henry VIII isn’t the mere volatile lunatic so often seen in films, but a complex and emotional being. His primary motivation in acquiring Anne is the prospect of her delivering him his first son, which he craves, his wife Catherine of Aragon apparently cursed. But it seems there is a genuine affection in Henry. The film is at times sympathetic for the King as it details his pursuit of Anne (we learn he had his hand forced into marriage with Catherine) brutally rebuffed though he is by the young would-be Queen.
There is a wealth of complexity stripped away by Burton as he navigates through a maze of emotion. Henry is at once vulnerable, weak-minded, callous, lustful and demonstrative, but all the while Burton’s smooth baritone snarl gives the character an underlining malignancy. The King’s complexity is wonderfully summed-up by Anne’s sister Mary, once Henry’s mistress. She tells her sister to never allow the King to “conquer” her. Never give him your undying affection, as that’s the moment he loses interest in you. There is a self-sabotage quality to Jarrott’s incarnation of the King that lends him great interest.
And Bujold moves in equal step with Burton. As the sturdy Queen she is initially a sheep donning wolf’s clothing, a cold exterior designed to taunt the volatile King, but who herself displays great versatility, transitioning from resolved, to power-hungry, to smitten, to jealous, to noble. Her steely veneer quickly cracks through the power the King offers her, “power is as exciting as love” she declares, growing infatuated with Henry as he grows less so with her.
There’s a great moment in the film where the narrative doubles back on itself, Henry stares longingly at Jane (his next wife) at a court ball, Anne seated jealously next to him. The scene unravels identically as it did at the start, where Henry watched Anne dance with Catherine sitting dejectedly at the King’s side, the characters coming full circle.
Both performers swivel through the many points of their arcs with amazing dexterity, their transformative powers enough to compensate for a film that would otherwise be tonally uncertain, as it at once attempts to be fleetingly romantic yet cynical.
Great support is offered in the form of Anthony Quayle as Cardinal Wolsey, the most human of all the characters, a misguided man tragically caught in the cross fire of his wavering faith and his blind allegiance to the King, and Thomas Cromwell, Henry’s sinister sidekick, who lingers in the King’s ear like an overgrown shoulder devil.
Yet for all its complexities, Anne of the Thousand Years never dramatically rings true. It lacks the stripped-back naturalism that made its 1966 counterpart so immersive, instead relying on its wonderfully extravagant sets and costumes as distractions and a soap-opera flair as an emotional crutch. As an alternative, it also lacks the gusto that another period piece possessed, The Lion in Winter, which boldly went all in with its lavishness whilst remaining concise and focussed. Jarrott instead finds himself with a baggy film, unfortunately caught on the awkward middle-ground of having great characters at his disposal, but with little in the way of passion for them to do.
Anne of the Thousand Days isn’t a dull film. It’s never stagnant and is offered great personality by its fine performances and ambitious production, by like the initial icy coating of its title character; the film can’t help but feel its without heart.