The six wives of King Henry VIII have been popularized in practically every medium of entertainment, and currently there’s a desire to tell their story “in their own words.” If you go to Broadway right now, you can even see a musical where the six queens put on a rollicking concert where they poke fun at everything from German accents to the size of Henry VIII’s… you get the point. But is there anything that can be mined from a story hundreds of years old?
Initially airing in the U.K. and picked up by AMC, creator Eve Hedderwick Turner’s “Anne Boleyn” bills itself as a “psychological thriller” following the second of Henry VIII’s doomed wives. Anne Boleyn (Jodie Turner-Smith) has been Queen for two-and-a-half years at this point, pregnant with her second child after birthing an unwanted daughter. Her eventual miscarriage causes the King (Mark Stanley) to start casting his eye toward his next wife and Anne fearing that her life is on the line.
Odds are anyone watching “Anne Boleyn” already knows the trajectory of her character, whether you’ve watched Showtime’s soapy “The Tudors” or the BBC’s sturdy “Wolf Hall.” There’s little new to say about Anne Boleyn, who remains one of the more popular Tudor queens to focus on due to her being touted as an independent woman who openly refused to conform to the standards of queendom. (In all this talk of presenting these women through modern views, how there aren’t a swath of Katherine Howard shows is beyond me. Go look her up!)
Hedderwick Turner does make the bold decision to eschew Henry and Anne’s courtship and love story, with Stanley’s Henry feeling like a bit player in everything. The couple’s relationship is already on the rocks; they have little interaction outside of Henry’s sporting with his next wife, the shy Jane Seymour (Lola Petticrew). The decision to cast Henry to the side is the most audacious element found within “Anne Boleyn” as it allows for not just the Queen to control the course of events, but situates her demise as one in a series of decisions, both fostered by others and her as well.
Jodie Turner-Smith dominates every scene, with a regal bearing that certainly makes her one of the more magnetic takes on Boleyn. You understand why Anne was both loved and hated, as she chides her ladies and openly tries to manipulate Henry’s older daughter, Mary (Aoife Hinds). The narrative situates Anne’s demise as less of Henry’s hopes for begetting a son and more that of Thomas Cromwell (Barry Ward), Henry’s perpetually smirking advisor who feels Anne’s in the way of his attentions to control England. There isn’t much discussion of what’s happening in England at this time, outside of snatches of conversation, so one must know the basic tenets of English history that comes with the Tudor legacy to not feel the isolation that comes from these characters being confined to one castle.
That’s not to say watching Turner-Smith stride in epic gowns isn’t enough. She has some beautiful speeches and appears to truly understand Boleyn’s frustrations, regrets, and anger. When she signs a document, presumably hoping it will save her, Turner-Smith’s question of selling her soul is tinged with such a genuine, deep-throated sadness. She’s coupled with Paappa Essiedu (“I May Destroy You”) as her brother George, who also has a fantastic rapport with Turner-Smith. Unfortunately, there isn’t enough time devoted to their relationship, and only a few scenes of them on-screen, that it comes as a bit of a shock when the pair are accused of having an affair.
That sense of confinement is probably the only way to see this as a psychological thriller. It’s a bizarre way to sell a historical drama like this, especially as there’s nothing particularly psychological or thrilling that takes place over the three episodes. Everything manifests in a straightforward manner; not even the cinematography conveys anything passing for disordered thinking. If anything, the show enjoys pointed metaphors a bit too much. Turning the camera toward an axe being used to end a meeting. Why remind them of how Boleyn dies while removing 90 percent of her history prior to?
At times it’s almost impossible to feel like we’re getting into these characters’ heads, let alone Anne’s. Her time in the Tower gives the actress time to stretch her muscles, having a few breakdown scenes that are beautiful in their heartbreak. But there’s little introspection into anything. Boleyn was accused of not just infidelity, but incest, and yet there’s no real insight into how that made many see the Queen as possessed by the Devil. Various women in her court either sell her out or stand up for her with little rhyme or reason, with no talk of why they would. So much of the Tudor court was a power play of gender and “Anne Boleyn” doesn’t seem to get at the core of that.
“Anne Boleyn” is a cold retelling of the the English queen’s life that is only given life through Jodie Turner-Smith’s performance. Maybe if this had been a full-length series with more opportunity to expand the world out, there would be more reflection here.
“Anne Boleyn” premieres Thursday, December 9 on AMC+.