Skip to main content

The king is mad. I am doomed.

Anne of the Thousand Days

(SPOILERS) If asked to speculate, I’d propose a greenlight for this adaptation of Maxwell Anderson’s 1948 play followed directly from A Man for All Seasons’ Best Picture Oscar win (it has been claimed the less than salubrious subject matter, rife as it is with royal staples of incest and adultery, would have prevented an earlier film version). One might further conjecture that it was foolhardy to think a same-era Tudor setting featuring many of the same figures could see lightning strike twice, yet both Becket and The Lion in Winter had been well received earlier that decade, both with Peter O’Toole as Henry II and both garnering Best Picture nominations. Anne of the Thousand Days duly earned one, almost as if middle/early modern age forays into British history were guaranteed recognition, regardless of quality. A bit like expensive musicals in that regard. That no one talks about Anne of the Thousand Days today should be no surprise, however; it’s curdled stodge, emblematic of historical genre’s predilection towards pompously inert pageantry.

Nevertheless, there’s a certain pleasure to be had, even with the least efficacious of these prestige pictures, in seeing all the familiar thesps lining up to essay familiar (or not so familiar) parts in generally familiar fashion. It’s no surprise to find Peter Jeffrey, TP McKenna, Denis Quilley, Cyril Luckham and Vernon Dobtcheff, but disappointing their roles are so perfunctory. Gary Bond (later of Wake in Fright) makes an impression as the servant tortured to confess adultery with Geneviève Bujold’s Anne Boleyn.

William Squire (a decade later, he could be relished overplaying to the max as the Shadow in Doctor Who’s The Armageddon Factor) has the difficult role of Sir Thomas More – difficult because Paul Scofield won the Best Actor Oscar for his take three years earlier – and supplies it with a keen-minded reserve. There’s some decent dialogue here and throughout – indeed, it’s the adaptation’s saving grace, such that, just as you are nodding off, an exchange or line of genuine wit or intelligence grabs your attention – and his request to be helped up to the chopping block is especially laden with gallows humour: “As for coming down, let me shift myself”. His mild reproof of Cromwell for failing to heed his advice also speaks volumes: “You have, I believe, told the king not what he ought to do, but what he can do”.

Michael Hordern is present too, entirely absent of a backbone when it comes to the king’s whims (he has already berated daughter Mary – Valerie Gearon – for her lack of insight into her monarch’s psyche: ”What he gets freely, he despises… You are lost to him”). He’s ever so keen to see Anne break the approved engagement with Lord Percy (Terence Wilton) and consort with King Henry VIII (Richard Burton). Anthony Quayle received a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his amenable Wolsey, eventually exited from his role after the Pope fails to approve Henry’s divorce.

There’s also John Colicos, everyone’s favourite Baltar from Battlestar Galactica (and Klingon Kor in Star Trek’s Errand of Mercy), whom I didn’t expect to see, ensuring Cromwell is a devious, odious hound. Strong as the ranks are, director Charles Jarrott – later to helm the disastrous Lost Horizon remake and Michael Crawford classic Condorman – offers nothing of consequence. The picture hangs there like a cumbersome medieval tapestry (Georges Delerue’s wandering minstrel score is another thumbs down). Pauline Kael generously suggested Jarrott was “good with actors and he keeps the issues and the dialogue intelligible”, which is damning with faint praise. If anything keeps Anne of the Thousand Days afloat, it’s the performers.

There are problems there too, however, mostly with the signature roles. Burton at his best is a legend on screen (his McPhisto in the previous year’s Candy is hilarious), but Kael had it right when she called the performance one of “more craftsmanship than vitality”. Burton reportedly hated Bujold (per his diaries), which may explain why there’s much more zip to the last half hour of the picture, when he becomes overtly antagonistic. Certainly, while there’s some strong dialogue between them – usually in respect of her spurning his attentions – there’s no spark or chemistry (Elizabeth Taylor appears as an extra, reputedly worried Burton would have a fling with his co-star; she needn’t have worried).

Henry: If some young man wrote this song for you, Anne, what would you say of it?
Anne: I should ask him how his wife liked it, your Grace.

I’m more familiar with Bujold from later career performances, so her co-starring here is as disorientating as seeing, say, Timothy Dalton or Anthony Hopkins in ’60s pictures. Again, Kael got to the nub of the problem with her “strong studied performance”: “Her readings are superb… but she’s too tight, too self-contained… one does not really warm to her”. At later points, she has sometimes been cast such that this quality is a strength, but you only really get onside when someone else – usually the king – is being an absolute pig.

Anne: Any evidence you have against me, you yourself bought and paid for. Do you now begin to believe it?

Kael also wondered at the apparent failings in Henry’s motivation, such that “it does not convince us that, after all those years of waiting for Anne, Henry would turn against her when she gives birth to a daughter”. While this isn’t a strong suit, sufficient is conveyed in this regard; she broke her promise to him (to give him a son), and in his immature perception, that is the end of things. We see this again later, when, having engineered testimony against her of adultery (extracted by Cromwell through torture), he breaks apart a witness, unable to bear the idea that another can attest to such a thing (since it undermines his kingly prowess).

Anne: My Elizabeth shall be queen!

Less forgivable in terms of plotting is the foreknowledge, with hindsight, that their daughter will become queen despite Henry’s protestations otherwise. Of course, any such text is itself scrutinised against the “official” record and found wanting or indulging inaccuracies for the sake of dramatic licence. The fidelity of the historical account is itself sacrosanct, whether or not such confidence is justified (invariably not, I’d argue).

Perhaps the most alarming moment in the movie is the beheading. Not because we see the grisly detail of the chop coming down on her “little neck” but the assumed posture; it’s natural to assume there’d be anything but a good, clean cut kneeling upright. It seems, however, this was why an expert French swordsman was brought in; it was much more effective than axe-led beheadings on a block (often, er, executed by inexperienced hangmen).

The Secret History of Hollywood’s Academy Awards rhetorically questioned how a Best Picture nomination was earned for this “dreary historical costume drama”, but one might ask the same of Hello, Dolly! (where the answer is simply that it had Babs in it). Anthony Holden’s explanation was illuminating: “by serving filet mignon and champagne at a series of special Academy showings – set up in panic at the film’s dismal box office – and then writing thank-you letters to the elderly swells who snoozed through this year’s women’s-magazine look at Henry VIII’s brief marriage to Anne Boleyn. Scores of freeloaders proved venal enough to ‘vote the card’ for what John Simon called ‘the quintessential work of art for people who haven’t the foggiest notion of what art is all about’”.

Ten nominations duly resulted, the most of any film that year; Burton and Bujold were recognised for acting, and there was also Adapted Screenplay, Art Direction, Cinematography, Score and Sound. In the end, though, all that champagne and steak only paid off with one actual win: Costume Design. Two wins, if you count Sid James wearing Burton’s coat for Carry on Henry. A few years later. As period Oscar fare goes, Anne of the Thousand Days is probably even less well remembered than Nicholas and Alexandra, with both sharing a ponderous telling borne of the incorrect notion that expansive (epic) accounts of history are their own reward.

Popular posts from this blog

This risotto is shmackin’, dude.

Stranger Things Season 4: Volume 1 (SPOILERS) I haven’t had cause, or the urge, to revisit earlier seasons of Stranger Things , but I’m fairly certain my (relatively) positive takes on the first two sequel seasons would adjust down somewhat if I did (a Soviet base under Hawkins? DUMB soft disclosure or not, it’s pretty dumb). In my Season Three review, I called the show “ Netflix’s best-packaged junk food. It knows not to outstay its welcome, doesn’t cause bloat and is disposable in mostly good ways ” I fairly certain the Duffer’s weren’t reading, but it’s as if they decided, as a rebuke, that bloat was the only way to go for Season Four. Hence episodes approaching (or exceeding) twice the standard length. So while the other points – that it wouldn’t stray from its cosy identity and seasons tend to merge in the memory – hold fast, you can feel the ambition of an expansive canvas faltering at the hurdle of Stranger Things ’ essential, curated, nostalgia-appeal inconsequentiality.

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989) (SPOILERS) There’s Jaws , there’s Star Wars , and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws ’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy , to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “ more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie ”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “ mainly boring ”. Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the

Is this supposed to be me? It’s grotesque.

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (2022) (SPOILERS) I didn’t hold out much hope for The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent being more than moderately tolerable. Not so much because its relatively untested director and his co-writer are mostly known in the TV sphere (and not so much for anything anyone is raving about). Although, it has to be admitted, the finished movie flourishes a degree of digital flatness typical of small-screen productions (it’s fine, but nothing more). Rather, due to the already over-tapped meta-strain of celebs showing they’re good sports about themselves. When Spike Jonze did it with John Malkovich, it was weird and different. By the time we had JCVD , not so much. And both of them are pre-dated by Arnie in Last Action Hero (“ You brought me nothing but pain ” he is told by Jack Slater). Plus, it isn’t as if Tom Gormican and Kevin Etten have much in the way of an angle on Nic; the movie’s basically there to glorify “him”, give or take a few foibles, do

All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies.

Watership Down (1978) (SPOILERS) I only read Watership Down recently, despite having loved the film from the first, and I was immediately impressed with how faithful, albeit inevitably compacted, Martin Rosen’s adaptation is. It manages to translate the lyrical, mythic and metaphysical qualities of Richard Adams’ novel without succumbing to dumbing down or the urge to cater for a broader or younger audience. It may be true that parents are the ones who get most concerned over the more disturbing elements of the picture but, given the maturity of the content, it remains a surprise that, as with 2001: A Space Odyssey (which may on the face of it seem like an odd bedfellow), this doesn’t garner a PG certificate. As the makers noted, Watership Down is at least in part an Exodus story, but the biblical implications extend beyond Hazel merely leading his fluffle to the titular promised land. There is a prevalent spiritual dimension to this rabbit universe, one very much

Whacking. I'm hell at whacking.

Witness (1985) (SPOILERS) Witness saw the advent of a relatively brief period – just over half a decade –during which Harrison Ford was willing to use his star power in an attempt to branch out. The results were mixed, and abruptly concluded when his typically too late to go where Daniel Day Lewis, Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro had gone before (with at bare minimum Oscar-nominated results) – but not “ full retard ” – ended in derision with Regarding Henry . He retreated to the world of Tom Clancy, and it’s the point where his cachet began to crumble. There had always been a stolid quality beneath even his more colourful characters, but now it came to the fore. You can see something of that as John Book in Witness – despite his sole Oscar nom, it might be one of Ford’s least interesting performances of the 80s – but it scarcely matters, or that the screenplay (which won) is by turns nostalgic, reactionary, wistful and formulaic, as director Peter Weir, in his Hollywood debu

The Illumi-what-i?

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022) (SPOILERS) In which Sam Raimi proves that he can stand proudly with the best – or worst – of them as a good little foot soldier of the woke apocalypse. You’d expect the wilfully anarchic – and Republican – Raimi to choke on the woke, but instead, he’s sucked it up, grinned and bore it. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is so slavishly a production-line Marvel movie, both in plotting and character, and in nu-Feige progressive sensibilities, there was no chance of Sam staggering out from beneath its suffocating demands with anything more than a few scraps of stylistic flourish intact.

If that small woman is small enough, she could fit behind a small tree.

Stranger Things Season 4: Volume 2 (SPOILERS) I can’t quite find it within myself to perform the rapturous somersaults that seem to be the prevailing response to this fourth run of the show. I’ve outlined some of my thematic issues in the Volume 1 review, largely borne out here, but the greater concern is one I’ve held since Season Two began – and this is the best run since Season One, at least as far my failing memory can account for – and that’s the purpose-built formula dictated by the Duffer Brothers. It’s there in each new Big Bad, obviously, even to the extent that this is the Big-Bad-who-binds-them-all (except the Upside Down was always there, right?) And it’s there with the resurgent emotional beats, partings, reunions and plaintively stirring music cues. I have to be really on board with a movie or show to embrace such flagrantly shameless manipulation, season after season, and I find myself increasingly immune.

Get away from my burro!

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) (SPOILERS) The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is beloved by so many of the cinematic firmament’s luminaries – Stanley Kubrick, Sam Raimi, , Paul Thomas Anderson and who knows maybe also WS, Vince Gilligan, Spike Lee, Daniel Day Lewis; Oliver Stone was going to remake it – not to mention those anteriorly influential Stone Roses, that it seems foolhardy to suggest it isn’t quite all that. There’s no faulting the performances – a career best Humphrey Bogart, with director John Huston’s dad Walter stealing the movie from under him – but the greed-is-bad theme is laid on a little thick, just in case you were a bit too dim to get it yourself the first time, and Huston’s direction may be right there were it counts for the dramatics, but it’s a little too relaxed when it comes to showing the seams between Mexican location and studio.

Your Mickey Mouse is one big stupid dope!

Enemy Mine (1985) (SPOILERS) The essential dynamic of Enemy Mine – sworn enemies overcome their differences to become firm friends – was a well-ploughed one when it was made, such that it led to TV Tropes assuming, since edited, that it took its title from an existing phrase (Barry Longyear, author of the 1979 novella, made it up, inspired by the 1961 David Niven film The Best of Enemies ). The Film Yearbook Volume 5 opined that that Wolfgang Petersen’s picture “ lacks the gritty sauciness of Hell in the Pacific”; John Boorman’s WWII film stranded Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune on a desert island and had them first duking it out before becoming reluctant bedfellows. Perhaps germanely, both movies were box office flops.

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls… dyin’ time’s here!

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985) Time was kind to Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome . As in, it was such a long time since I’d seen the “final chapter” of the trilogy, it had dwindled in my memory to the status of an “alright but not great” sequel. I’d half-expected to have positive things to say along the lines of it being misunderstood, or being able to see what it was trying for but perhaps failing to quite achieve. Instead, I re-discovered a massive turkey that is really a Mad Max movie in name only (appropriately, since Max was an afterthought). This is the kind of picture fans of beloved series tend to loathe; when a favourite character returns but without the qualities or tone that made them adored in the first place (see Indiana Jones in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull , or John McClane in the last two Die Hard s). Thunderdome stinks even more than the methane fuelling Bartertown. I hadn’t been aware of the origins of Thunderdome until recently, mainly because I was