He’s Henery the eighth, he is

Anne of the Thousand Days (Charles Jarrott, 1969)

Of all the films chosen for the NFT’s Richard Burton season, this was the one that jumped out at me. I’m not a great lover of Burton but I could see why he would be just right for Henry VIII (all the egotism, tantrums and self-destructiveness), and he proved to be so. Furthermore, although Liz Taylor and he were very good at tearing pieces out of one another, it was decided that she was too old for the titular role and they got in Genevieve Bujold. In the unlikely event that such people exist, regular readers will recall that last month I quite fell for Miss Bujold in Obession, so Lizzie’s loss was my gain.

Bujold’s part is very interesting here and nothing like the fragile, ethereal Italian girl from Obsession. She’s a very intelligent girl who, through circumstance, has to become a hard-nosed bitch in order to simply survive; but at the close of play, sacrifices herself partly out of spite and partly to make sure her daughter will be well off. When she clashes with Burton it’s like watching a hungry fox square up to a rooster.

The design of the film is impressive, the Tudor court recreated by location filming at various castles and at one point, the Tower of London. No expense has been spared by the costume department, the richly-coloured finery encrusted with diamonds and gems. Burton will drink from a golden goblet, people walk around chewing on chicken legs, all the visuals you expect and associate with the period. A contemporary-sounding score incorporates some of the monarch’s own tunes.

There’s also a real sense of suffocation from the politics, of the court and of the land. These people fall in and out of love and lust, over-react and make mistakes like we all do, with the difference that their decisions will affect the fates of entire countries. People are obliged to betray their friends, their family to save their own skin. It’s too much for them to bear and they turn on one another with some eye-poppingly waspish and colourful dialogue. Sample Burton line; “At 15, I was rogering maids left-right-and-centre”.

We start near the end, with the King agonising over whether to sign Anne’s death warrant. Thomas Cromwell has brought it over, his horsemen scattering a flock of sheep before a few Losey-ish shots of footmen admitting him and closing the doors in our face. Burton is weak, tearful and full of self-doubt; as Cromwell smiles his evil, sickly smile we think of Othello and Iago. The camera zooms into Burton’s anguished face and some period music kicks in; we sense a flashback coming on…

Some young people are dancing at court, Anne Boleyn (Bujold) amongst them. Watching from his throne, Henry can’t take his eyes off her. The frumpy, bird-like Katherine of Aragon notices and looks appropriately miserable. It is established that Henry despairs of ever having a male heir by Katherine and resents her for it.

Enter the red robes of Cardinal Wolsey, played all smug and butter-wouldn’t-melt by Anthony Quayle. He’s carrying an orange in his hand for some reason. There’s a love match between Anne and young Northumberland, but Henry withholds his consent. He reveals to Wolsey that he’s “bored of court, bored with my Spanish cow”, and intends to visit the Boleyn estate in Kent.

In front of his audience, Henry is a garrulous orator. His wife is barren, therefore it’s all “God’s willing” that he should have Anne instead (for God, read Henry VIII). Thomas Boleyn is hedging his bets for now.

“Will Anne have me?”

“She’s no fool.”

Anne, however, is trying to elope with her beau. Our first few glimpses of Bujold showed a porcelain doll with a childlike delight in her smile, but as she dallies with Northumberland in the rose garden, we learn that there’s a little more to her than that. She wants sex before the marriage, and he ought to know that she isn’t a virgin. The poor lad looks a little scared. As they lie together, the feet of Cromwell enter in the foreground of the frame. Game’s up, kids.

The pair get a stern telling off from Wolsey- disobey the King and you die. Anne is quaking with anger. “I shall not go the same way as my sister!”, she declares- we’ve already met Mary, who bore the King’s bastard and was quickly discarded by him. Out on a hunt, meanwhile, Henry is asking the lads for some team tips. Pretend you’re impotent with every woman except her, he’s told. They open up like… “Forget the similie”, chuckles Burton.

When Anne and Henry talk, she’s cold and snubs him. He sends everyone out of the room and immediately starts pleading, the sense of an obstacle inflaming his desire “No woman’s ever talked to me like that”, he whines in amazement- the whine of a spoilt man who’s used to getting everything he wants. Unseen, Cromwell and Wolsey watch the scene from a balcony. A fortnight later the King is still in Kent and Anne is still a tease. In London, Wolsey is very content to play Mandelson and run the government himself.

Anne goes out riding with Henry, but is even more scathing when he tries to get close to her. She ridicules his music, his poetry, and says “you make love like you eat- with a great deal of noise and no subtlety”. Henry is being driven mad, and can’t even enjoy his tavern piss-ups without flying into a rage.  Mary counsels Anne to keep it up (“the moment you are conquered, he’ll walk away”).

The stakes are raised when Bujold gets her cleavage out for a masque. You already have a wife, she tells Henry, provoking a rambling confession. I didn’t marry, England married Spain. I was 17 and I was a political pawn. All our sons died. The look in Bujold’s eye suggests she might be beginning to thaw.

In court, Anne is walking her tightrope with some skill- Henry follows her like a dog, and she rules the roost without even having to put out. She humiliates Wolsey by asking a few searching questions and more or less obliging the Cardinal to put his personal fortune at the disposal of the King. Playing archery in the background, Henry strikes bullseye.

Wolsey is summoned in the middle of the night, making his fat charlady hide behind the bed before he’ll open the door. Anne and Henry are playing chess as he enters. Henry has thought of a way he could annul his marriage to Katherine. Wolsey begs him to reconsider; the Pope will excommunicate him and all of England, not to mention Europe, will turn against him. It could well mean war. However, at the idea of becoming Queen we can see the dollar signs in Bujold’s eyes.

For the first time in months, Henry goes to see his unfortunate wife. She grovels, he waffles on about God’s willing once more- but he can’t even look at her. “I will live and die your wife!”, she insists. Wolsey is back from Rome, which has been pre-emptively seized by Charles of Spain. The Pope won’t annul. Anne delights in further mocking Henry, who takes it all out on the “unfit for office” Cardinal.

The catalyst for a breakthrough is Cromwell. With Jesuitical cleverness, he points out that to obey the Pope before the King is treason. And if Henry passed an act of supremacy appointing himself as head of the Church, he could help himself to the church’s limitless coffers. Sir Thomas More is furious at Cromwell for opening Pandora’s box; “instead of telling him what he ought to do, you told him what he can do- and now we are lost”.

Having succumbed to his achilles heel and chosen pussy over the church, Henry enjoys his ill-gotten gains. Anne’s resistance finally cracks when Burton says “Enjoy your palace, cold-hearted bitch!” and makes to storm off. Soon she’s cuddling against his hairy chest in bed and telling him about all the male heirs they’re going to have. She does indeed get knocked up and they marry in haste; it’s all downhill from here.

After a ceremony where the priest trembles and stutters, and Henry races ahead with his vows, we get our first sight of the common man. Henry and Anne walk through the streets in a display of much pomp; but the plebs who had been paid to cheer instead heckle “the King’s whore” and shout “God save the true Queen!”. Trumpets and cannons are needed to drown out the jeers.

The baby is a girl. Anne curses herself for having “failed” and a sulking Burton walks out, refusing to kiss his baby. As Mary warned, they become estranged and we witness a carbon copy of the opening scene, with Anne in Katherine’s place and Jane Seymour in Anne’s place; it’s quite All About Eve. Anne manoeuvres to banish Seymour, but is reminded that the people hate her and she is dependent on the King’s protection. The balance of power has shifted.

Choosing “a good death over a bad conscience”, Sir Thomas More is sent to the chopping block. A camera looms over the scene, descending until it reaches the eye level of the plebs in the crowd. He is refused permission to address them. As the masked axeman brings his blade down, we cut to an hysterical, screaming Bujold (prophetic). Her latest baby -a boy- is stillborn, and with it die her chances of staying on the throne.

More tantrums from Burton (“I am cursed!”). He wants another annulment and Cromwell can get it- if Anne were guilty of adultery, it would be treason. He picks a hapless court musician and extracts confession through torture. Anne’s uncle is sent to take her to the tower, leaving the infant Elizabeth I in an otherwise empty frame. By torchlight, we see rowing boats on the Thames entering the bowels of the Tower (much more impressive with no gherkins in sight).

At the trial, even Anne’s brother is accused of having been her lover. Sickeningly, their father steps up as witness to this. The trial is a proper kangaroo court; Henry hides behind a pillar, but when the musician is questioned he cannot help bursting into court and asking his own questions. In his Stalinist paranoia, he seems to believe in the adulteries that he himself invented. Such vulnerability only makes him even less likeable- Burton can certainly serve up a complex bad guy.

Henry and Anne have one last encounter in her cell, and he makes her an offer; if she agrees to remove Elizabeth from the line of succession, she will be spared and can live in exile. She does not agree; she is determined that Elizabeth will rule, she will rule better than Henry, “and my blood will have been well spent”. To further revenge herself, as a reeling Henry leaves her cell she cries out that she was unfaithful to him with half his entire court. She might as well.

The second beheading is as well handled as the first. After the blade falls, the camera waits until the body is removed before showing, from a birds-eye-view, a pool of blood on the platform’s sawdust floor. Burton is out hunting with his mates when he hears the ceremonial cannon fire; evidently he’s too balls-deep in Jane Seymour to care anymore. We see little Elizabeth wandering alone through a garden as Bujold’s last words about her are replayed. So ends a gripping rise-and-fall story, with a worldly-wise portrayal of the impermanence of love.


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August 2009
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