Each time I return to this film, I realize how exquisite it is. How beautifully written … and why not? It is adapted from an award-winning play! How beautifully costumed … how beautifully cast … and I think it, more than any other film about the period, captures the cast of characters with sincere honesty and transparency, and gives them all a fair shake.
This is the Anne that first captured my heart as a teenager; a wild, feisty girl who dares to tell a king “no.” More than once. Often directly to his face. “No, I will not give myself to you.” “No, I do not want you.” “I think your poetry is dreadful!” By God, Henry swears, no woman has ever talked to me this way – and no man either! How dare she? But Anne dares. And then she dares again. And she has the gall to tell him, in one of the most fantastic “it never happened” speeches in playwright history, that HER Elizabeth will reign after him, over an empire he could never have built, and SHE WILL BE QUEEN.
Ah, I can smell the feminism in the air, a fragrant odor that outweighs the pungency of Richard Burton’s terrific Henry, a charismatic budding sociopath who explodes with passionate fervor and adoration for “the one woman in England who will not have me” one moment, and the next signs her death warrant “for lying, if for nothing else at all.” A man who tells his agent Cromwell to “get rid of her,” and then is so unsure of himself that he starts wondering if the lies they concocted about her are indeed the truth. “Poor Henry,” Anne crows from her tower prison cell, “you are starting to believe the lies you bought and paid for!”
Here, the women are paragons of feministic virtue, the strong, reliable, witty ones in the face of Henry and his odious, corrupt court of men. Perhaps that is why it appeals to me; that in a time full of oppression of women, when they were used as chattel in marital alliances or, as Henry thought, bedfellows to be tossed aside when the allure wore thin, here we have two women who are, in the end, more alike than not: Katharine and Anne. Both are treated fairly in this screenplay, and both have their powerful impact, but both wind up refusing to agree to the King’s demands for the sake of their daughters, the next generation of feminists. No, Katharine tells him; I will not go away quietly. You can fight Rome herself to get rid of me, but I will not give up my daughter’s right to the succession. And when Henry offers Anne a similar choice, to agree to make her daughter a bastard, she throws it back in his face. She will happily die to keep her daughter in the succession, she shouts at him, “for it will have been blood well spent!”
Poor Anne in real life never had such a chance at happiness – she never had an offer to “go away quietly.” Her execution was bought and paid for in advance, and there was no intended pardon … but it makes for a pretty sort of fiction and gives her a grand speech full of all the things her death represents, and the future for England; it establishes Elizabeth to her rightful place as the monarch who brought England back from the brink of disaster, and did it all … alone.
But while this adaptation causes my heart to sing, there is another aspect of it that leaves an impression on me, a far more chilling thing: the notion of absolute sovereignty coinciding with the belief that everything a king does is “God’s will.” In a shocking scene for any believer, Henry first boasts of his prowess with women and makes inquiries about bedding Anne and then pompously reminds others that he never does anything outside the will of God; that when he speaks, God answers. His false piety is shown in contrast with his total depravity, but also a brutal insight into how the king actually thought. Tyranny is always worsened when the monarch believes that every action they take is “willed and supported by God,” no matter how immoral or self-serving. Henry claimed piety while being a Letcher. He insisted his actions were for God, but … God never asks us to do wrong, to take what is not ours, to cheat on our spouses, or to satisfy and over-indulge our lusts of the flesh.
Immorality is still immorality, and it is still against God’s will, no matter who does it or says otherwise. The more frightening realization is, this is actually what Henry believed to be true. He believed he was on the throne by divine right, and that gave him the right to do whatever he wished, in God’s name. So what did he do? Eventually, establish himself as the highest moral authority in England, as the Head of the Church of England. An immoral man, presuming to dictate morality to others, who claimed to have a direct line to the will of God. Yes, that is what chills me most about Henry’s reign … not that he had six wives, nor that he killed two of them, or the profound cruelty with which he treated many… but that he did it all with a claim that he was doing God’s will. Divorcing Katharine to obey God. Murdering his friends and wives to appease God.
That, undoubtedly, is the most awful kind of tyrant, and the one that will ultimately pay the greatest price.