Do we really need another retelling of Anne Boleyn’s story? Even if you didn’t pay attention in your history lessons, we all know how the story goes: Henry VIII divorced the church and his first wife to marry Anne, who he later beheaded in order to marry again.
The infamous Tudor queen has always compelled huge TV and film audiences in productions such as Anne of the Thousand Days (1969), The Tudors (2007), The Other Boleyn Girl (2008) and Wolf Hall (2015). We’ve even seen a singing and dancing Anne alongside Henry’s other five wives in award-winning stage musical, Six.
And yet – over 500 years after her death – Anne still continues to stir curiosity and fascination in fictional takes on her life. Cue: Jodie Turner-Smith’s turn as the queen in Channel 5’s new three-part series, Anne Boleyn, which started tonight (1 June).
Even if the need for this isn’t there; the hype around the show proves that audiences certainly want it. There were many critics in the queen’s time who accused her of bewitching the people around her. Maybe they had a point.
In most of the screen adaptations of Anne’s life, she is painted as the ultimate villain: seducing Henry VIII, dancing on the grave of his ex-wife Catherine of Aragon, and even sleeping with her brother (along with many other lovers) to try and conceive an heir. She is vicious, manipulative, evil and destructive. No wonder a woman who dared to possess so much power ended up being beheaded on the order of her own husband, right?
But – although we’ll never be able to know her true character, which only adds to the mystery and intrigue around her – a lot of myths about the queen are finally being questioned. In fact, Anne is considered by many as a feminist icon.
In her book Anne Boleyn: 500 Years Of Lies, historian Hayley Nolan argues that Anne respected Queen Catherine, lived a life constantly threatened by domestic violence, and used her position to help her people. “I discovered that, ‘Oh, Anne wasn’t the scheming seductress that we’ve all been fed over and over again,’” Nolan recently told Stylist, comparing her narrative of being a misjudged person in power to Meghan Markle’s.
The makers of Anne Boleyn agree that the queen’s story needs to be more accurately reframed, which is what led to them creating a show about her last days from her own perspective. Executive producer Faye Ward said that “when you look at how, historically, Anne’s picture has been painted, there is so much written about her downfall; how she was a temptress and a witch. When in fact, she was an incredibly heroic politician who was murdered by her husband.”
When it came to writing the series, writer Eve Hedderwick Turner said it was clear to her that this story was a phycological thriller: “Being a woman in that time, even a woman like Anne Boleyn who had a lot of power at her fingertips, she was still being kept out of the rooms where so many decisions were being made… so it felt really natural to take it down that psychological thriller route.”
So, with all this in mind, did Turner-Smith’s take on Anne deliver something new?
In episode one, Anne uses her wit, cunning and intellect to survive from the off. And yes, she tramples over people to stay ahead. However, while Turner-Smith is terrifyingly sharp in showing this (she is venomous towards a young Jane Seymour, who Henry has started courting), her vulnerable and paranoid moments prove that this doesn’t make her evil – she’s just a woman in a man’s world. And those men have the power to end her reign and, ultimately, her life.
Take, for instance, the moment when Thomas Cromwell tells Anne: “Your influence lies in your belly, not in your brain.” Determined to assert herself, we see Anne continue in her educated mission: calling out Cromwell for not giving the church money under the Dissolution Act; and getting hold of the first full English language Bible so that everyone can read it. But these progressive social moves seem redundant when we reach the final scene, where she gets dressed in a corset hours after miscarrying, and runs after a fleeing Henry while shouting his name and eventually falling to her knees. It proves that Cromwell right; Anne will only be recognised and remembered for providing an heir.
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Filmed at Ripley Castle in North Yorkshire, the production as a whole is beautiful and believable. You can feel the tension that so many must have felt through the dark corridors and in closed-off rooms in the palace. And Paapa Essiedu (I May Destroy You) is perfect as Anne’s brother and close confidant, the charismatic and doomed George.
It makes total sense that Turner-Smith’s take should remain unflinching, tough and intense – just because Anne wasn’t as evil as they say, it doesn’t mean that she was a wilting flower. However, it would have been refreshing if the episode explored more of her philanthropic achievements (like her work on the Poor Law) and her role as a mother. Sure, it’s not as compelling as love affairs and sharp-tongued lectures, but it would add to the need of this particular retelling.
Whether or not there needs to be another production about Anne Boleyn, the fact remains that her story is an incredible one and it will always be retold. In this case, it feels like we are getting a little closer to the truth. And it helps that Turner-Smith is just as compelling as the queen in question.
Images: Channel 5
Hollie is a digital writer at Stylist.co.uk, mainly covering the daily news on women’s issues, politics, celebrities and entertainment. She also keeps an ear out for the best podcast episodes to share with readers. Oh, and don’t even get her started on Outlander…