Anyone even vaguely familiar with British history will be familiar with that of Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s second and most notorious wife. Even now, centuries after her decapitation, she remains a uniquely enigmatic figure: a canny woman who so charmed a king that he threw away generations of tradition to divorce his wife and reject the church to be with her. Anne’s been portrayed innumerable times; even now, she and the rest of the wives take to Broadway six nights out of seven in a sparkly new “her-story.” But almost every version of Anne Boleyn bears a similar knowing smirk, signaling that this Tudor wife isn’t quite like the others. Now, writer Eve Hedderwick Turner and director Lynsey Miller bring a new “Anne Boleyn” to life, albeit a rather blunt one that focuses on the bitter end of her reign rather than its salacious beginnings.
This three-episode “Anne Boleyn” series, premiering Dec. 9 on AMC Plus after an earlier U.K. premiere on Channel 5, makes obvious efforts to differentiate its portrayal of Anne from any other. It picks up shortly before Anne’s final, damning miscarriage, which was not coincidentally just a few months before Henry decided he was done with her for good. It also bills itself as a “psychological thriller,” which, despite interspersing some jarring dreams into Anne’s increasingly desperate daily routines, doesn’t quite track upon watching. Still, details such as Lynsey Moore’s lush costumes and the production unfolding in historic locations like Yorkshire’s Bolton Castle lend fitting grandeur to the story, even as it all too quickly unravels.
Most importantly, this “Anne Boleyn” stars Jodie Turner-Smith, a choice that initially set off the kind of predictably dull firestorm of debate about whether or not it makes sense to see Black actors in retellings of white history. In the context of how “Anne Boleyn” portrays the queen, though, the show uses Turner-Smith’s casting — and that of “I May Destroy You” standout Paapa Essiedu as Anne’s equally doomed brother — to underline how the Boleyns always stood out in Henry’s court. That Turner-Smith’s Anne is notably headstrong comes as no surprise given historical accounts of Anne’s character; that Turner-Smith is also Black, surrounded at court by a bevy of suspicious white people, adds another dimension to this familiar story. When Henry (Mark Stanley) gets distracted by one of her very young, white ladies in waiting — i.e. wife number three, Jane Seymour (Lola Petticrew) — the stark difference between the women couldn’t be more immediately obvious.
Tasked with depicting Anne’s very darkest days, Turner-Smith does all she can to bring the character to life, even as an over-explanatory opening scroll getting the audience up to speed tries to do her work for her before she gets the chance. She fully embodies Anne’s genuine lust and affection for her husband, grief at absorbing the pain of birthing a stillborn son, and disdain for the sham of a trial that a smugly victorious Cromwell (Barry Ward) steers towards the inevitable conclusion of her death. In tracing the final days of Anne’s life, this adaptation does its best to take her seriously as a woman, mother and, in some of its most interesting asides, as a boss to a roomful of dissatisfied ladies-in-waiting.
And yet, neither Turner-Smith nor series’ sharpest scenes are the most explosive or devastating. Even as “Anne Boleyn” puts one foot in front of the other to get the queen to her terrible endpoint, weighted down by its own gravitas, its most compelling moments come when Turner-Smith gets to embrace Anne’s pettier, more impulsive instincts. For as grandiose as scenes such as her final beseeching speech before death may be, the ones that linger involve Anne displaying some more grounded, recognizable flaws. As Anne falls out of favor, she falls prey to idle gossip, accidentally on purpose insults anyone she perceives as weak, and generally overplays her hand to catastrophic effect. Here, Anne gets to be not just an iconic queen, but a flesh and blood human woman trying, and failing, to overcome the odds stacked against her.
“Anne Boleyn” is currently available to stream on AMC Plus.