Anne Boleyn: A modern interpretation for the modern era

Written By: Michaela Makusha

The announcement of Jodie Turner-Smith, a black woman, as Anne Boleyn paired with the use of colour-blind casting for multiple other characters had caused controversy before the Channel 5 series had even premiered. For example, the portrayal of Archbishop Cranmer by an Asian actor, and Anne’s ladies being played by women of multiple ethnicities. 

Social media “historians” kindly wanted to remind everyone that Anne Boleyn was in fact white and therefore should only be played by a white actress. The same outrage was given when Sophie Okonedo, a black actress, performed as Margaret of Anjou in the Hollow Crown. It is funny how we never see similar outrage whenever we see historical figures of colour portrayed by white actors, such as the continuous casting of white actors in movies and television shows set in Ancient Egypt such as in the 2018 movie Exodus, which had Christian Bale, a white British actor portraying Moses. 

Colour-blind casting isn’t new; the RSC (Royal Shakespeare Company) have been doing this for years. In 2015, they cast Lucian Msamati, a black man as Iago in Othello. In a 2018 production of Romeo and Juliet, Romeo was portrayed by Bally Gill, an Asian actor. Changing the colour of the characters in no way changes the story that is told – Iago still hates Othello, Romeo still loves Juliet- but perhaps it is a sign that society isn’t as tolerant as we would like it to be if casting decisions like this are still controversial. 

It is rare for black women to be allowed to play complex characters. So, the casting of a dark-skinned black woman was interesting. Before watching the series I was nervous in that I thought the series would go down the traditional route of presenting Anne as Henry’s difficult, bewitching, adulterous wife who didn’t know her place. Due to this, I was concerned that the show would be playing into the stereotype that black women are difficult. Instead, we get a multi-dimensional character in Anne Boleyn. She is allowed to be angry when imprisoned in the Tower of London and when she catches her husband with Jane Seymour. She is allowed to be ambitious and intelligent when speaking to the men of the court and unapologetic in her dominance over her ladies, particularly in her scenes with Jane Seymour.  This was a more complex and nuanced portrayal of Anne

The series lacked the usual colour and joviality seen in other Tudor series such as The Tudors and Wolf Hall which makes sense. Each episode begins with a countdown of how long Queen Anne has left to live. From the beginning, I could tell this was going to be different from other Tudor dramas I had watched.

The series portrays Anne as not just ambitious and blunt as in other adaptations but also intelligent. We see her battling with Thomas Cromwell, her knowledge of Protestantism shown through her excitement at receiving Tyndale’s English Bible – a document forbidden in England at the time. Moreover, she effectively knows how to control Henry. She manages to manipulate him against Cromwell and his dealing with Spain by playing on his fragile masculinity. It is in that moment we can almost see the sowing of hatred for her amongst the Tudor patriarchy. They dislike her, not because they believe her to be an adulterous, disloyal wife as they claim at her trial, but because she knows how to play their game.

We also see a softer side of Anne Boleyn not usually seen in the media. She is close with her brother (without leaning into the usual innuendo). She is upset when her daughter Elizabeth doesn’t recognise her when she goes to visit her and is kind to Lady Worcester who falls pregnant with her brother’s child. This makes you sympathetic towards her and shows us the challenges of being Queen.

We also get to see the aftermath of her stillbirth. Usually, the failure to conceive a son is seen from Henry’s point of view – we see his anger, him blaming Anne which eventually leads to him wanting a new wife. Instead, we get to see Anne’s mourning for the child she lost and her needing time to recover from the birth before going back to court. This is still rare to see for women on mainstream television.

What sets this series apart from other portrayals of Anne Boleyn is that we get a sense of the ‘true’ Anne. We all know the events that lead to her execution, and we have seen it many times. But we have rarely, if ever, seen it from her point of view. When Cromwell comes to arrest her, she is genuinely confused and surprised. We are not shown the scheming by the Tudor patriarchy to have Anne executed like we usually do. The audience is just as lost as she is, and we usually don’t see this side of her. She goes from being on top of the world to being locked in a tower. She goes from spying on others, to her own aunt reporting her every move to her jailors. 

This is not me arguing Anne Boleyn was a good person. I admit to Anne not being my favourite Tudor queen but, in this series, she isn’t presented as either evil or a victim. Instead, her actions are presented to us and we as the audience get to decide how we feel about her. 

Moreover, there were not the usual over the top sex scenes and drama we’ve come to associate with period dramas. Though I suppose as it was focusing on Anne and not her husband, it makes sense that we don’t see the endless stream of mistresses of the court. It presented more focus on the dynamics between Anne and other women at court, mainly how she controlled them. 

Overall, the series was good. Not mind-blowing but I think it gave the audience a different view on Anne Boleyn. She isn’t a witch or manipulator. She was an intelligent, over ambitious queen whose crimes came down to not giving Henry VIII a son and annoying the men of the Tudor court. 

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Featured image courtesy of Pixabay.com. Image found here. No changes have been made to this image.

Durham student studying Philosophy and Politics.

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