Thursday, February 12, 2015

Don't Lose Your Head

Film: Anne of the Thousand Days
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

I’ve discovered a particular fascination with the person of Richard Burton. He is quite naturally all over my Oscar lists through a couple of decades, so I come across him often. Burton is considered one of the great actors of his generation but he was also a massive ham. There isn’t a moment of him being on screen when he doesn’t seem to make a meal of chewing the scenery. He does this in roles where he plays an average person. Give him a larger than life role, like a king, and get out of his way. That’s where we’re going with Anne of the Thousand Days--Burton stomping around as a king.

Anne of the Thousand Days is, in fact, the story behind the romance between Henry VIII (Richard Burton) and Anne Boleyn (Genevieve Bujold). As tends to be the case when dealing with Henry, we start with his marriage to Catherine of Aragon (Irene Papas), an unpleasant union that resulted in the birth of Mary (Nicola Pagett) and a few sons born dead. Henry, stereotypically horny and desperate for a male heir sets his sights on Anne Boleyn, who happens to be the sister of a woman bearing Henry’s illegitimate child. The wrench in the works is that Anne is engaged to another man, a match approved of by Thomas Wolsey (Anthony Quayle). There’s also the question of getting Henry’s marriage to Catherine annulled, something strongly endorsed by Thomas Cromwell (John Colicos) and opposed by pretty much everyone else.

I’m not going to go into the actual history here. If you really want to learn the political maneuvering, the various plans of succession, and the formation of the Anglican Church, you can find websites and books on those topics. What makes this film interesting is not its historical accuracy (or inaccuracy), but the point of view. This is, more or less, the Anne’s story and much of it comes from her perspective.

As such a great deal of the film focuses specifically on Anne and what is going on in her world. Anne is depicted here as not quite manipulative but as someone who is very aware of her place and of what she wants. She resists Henry for a good period of time until he fulfills a series of promises to her, including the annulment to Catherine, which created a split with the Catholic church and eventually led to the deaths of thousands in England, including people like Thomas More (William Squire). What she wants, more or less, is a legacy. As it happens, her legacy comes in the form of Elizabeth, who would become queen after Henry’s death.

Much of the second half of the film deals with Henry’s desire for a male heir and Anne working to position Elizabeth as being Henry’s heir in lieu of a son. The birth of Elizabeth comes as a blow to Henry’s plans and his manhood. When Anne later has a miscarriage of what would have been a male heir, Henry loses interest in Anne and begins to favor her eventual successor, Jane Seymour (Lesley Paterson). The last act of the film, then, is the maneuvering of Anne to put Elizabeth in place and Henry’s maneuvering to get rid of Anne and try again for a male successor.

There are three performances nominated from this film. Of them, I think I like Anthony Quayle’s performance as the put-upon churchman the best. Quayle plays Wolsey as a man very aware of his position and what is various titles actually mean. One of the more interesting scenes comes when he is directly challenged by Anne about the number of titles he possesses. It was Wolsey, after all, who approved of Anne’s original marriage and who then relented, forcing her lover to marry elsewhere. In that moment, Anne begins plotting her revenge, and begins it by announcing that she believes Wolsey holds more titles than the king. Eventually, this translates in the Wolsey being forced to give up property to her and eventually being forced to choose between keeping is life and serving Henry or being killed for defying the king.

My biggest issue with Genevieve Bujold is her accent. This is more or less passed off as her having spent time at court in Paris. Whether or not this is true, her accent feels out of place here. Her performance is a good one. She plays Anne as a woman who is shrewd and intelligent and willing to put her own life at risk for the benefit of her child. That this is likely inaccurate historically is neither here nor there. It’s entirely about Anne’s character.

The centerpiece, despite the name of the film, is really Richard Burton. Burton has evidently decided that Henry should live up to the larger-than-life reputation. Burton’s portrayal of Henry is, I’m kind of embarrassed to say this, of Shatner proportions. He yells, he stamps, he wheedles, and there’s not a moment when he’s on screen that he isn’t trying to force the viewers’ attention on himself. It’s a fun performance, but it also gets old very quickly.

Anne of the Thousand Days was fine, but I’m pretty sure I won’t watch it again. It’s not because it’s not worth watching but because there’s not really enough there for a second viewing.

Why to watch Anne of the Thousand Days: A historical story you likely know from a perspective you likely don’t.
Why not to watch: Richard Burton chews every bit of every piece of scenery.

4 comments:

  1. I saw this movie on a double-bill DVD along with the movie that has Vanessa Redgrave as Mary, Queen of Scots.

    They're both really good.

    But I can't see a Richard Burton movie without thinking of Bill Murray imitating him in Scrooged (just as I can't think of Mary, Queen of Scots without thinking of the Monty Python radio version).

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    1. The Python Mary, Queen of Scots is a couple of minuts of brilliance.

      Mary, Queen of Scots is still coming for me. I'll get to it one of these days.

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  2. For me this film was a revelation in regards to Bujold. I was really impressed with the job she did here, including holding her own with Burton. And she looked like a teenager, which impressed me even more as I was watching it, but I looked it up afterwards and she was 27. I was still impressed, though.

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    1. Bujold really is good in this. I think she more than holds her own against Burton. Burton plays everything like he's on a stage and needs to hit the back row. Bujold is completely natural and believable in almost every frame.

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