UK TV review: Anne Boleyn (Channel 5)
Ivan Radford | On 06, Jun 2021
“When people speak your name, they will think of mine. You will never be rid of me.” That’s Anne Boleyn to Thomas Cromwell in Channel 5’s Anne Boleyn, a TV drama that retells the familiar events surrounding Henry VIII’s ill-fated second wife. And they really are familiar, popping up on our screens in everything from The Tudors and The Other Boleyn Girl to Wolf Hall. Channel 5’s approach commendably avoids the chest-heaving melodrama of the former, although it never reaches the heights of the latter.
That, of course, would be a hard feat to pull off, thanks to Mark Rylance’s performance as Thomas Cromwell looming over all 16th-century royal court tales for the rest of time. It’s to Anne Boleyn’s credit, then, that it follows through on that pointedly rebuttal from Anne to Cromwell, by focusing as its title suggests entirely on history from her perspective. Where before we had a gripping political drama of cunning and manipulation, here we have something closer to a psychological thriller, fuelled by paranoia and inevitable doom.
The script by Eve Hedderwick Turner doesn’t always pull off the balance between thriller and period piece, with the dialogue jumping from colloquial to wordy from scene to scene. It also lacks a certain subtlety – “I’ve no use for an animal that won’t obey me,” Henry tells Anne, after she glimpses from behind a closed door a rebellious horse being executed.
But it’s very effective at putting us in the headspace of Anne, as the walls start to close in around her. By the end of the first episode, we’ve got no idea why on earth Mark Stanley’s monarch would be eyeing up Jane Seymour instead of Anne – whether that’s intentional or not, it reinforces Anne’s sense of unjustified victimhood. Indeed, even the fact that Barry Ward’s Cromwell can’t hold a candle to Rylance’s Cromwell is by the by, because this isn’t his story at all – the strongest performances, and scripting, come from Anne’s corner, with Thalissa Teixeira, who impressed in Baghdad Central, bringing depth and loyalty to Anne’s lady-in-waiting and the always-excellent Paapa Essiedu (I May Destroy You, Gangs of London, the RSC’s Hamlet) shining as Anne’s brother, George. Tellingly, they’re the ones still sharing the screen with Anne in the final episode, with Henry effectively absent.
The result is a mixed bag, but the thread holding it all together is undoubtedly Jodie Smith-Turner, whose performance as Anne is the reason to tune in. It’s either a welcome piece of colour-blind casting that captures Anne’s humanity and resilience, or it’s an interesting way to draw out the layers of Anne’s growing outsider status in the court. Regardless, she’s a smart fit for the role, at once fiery and fierce even as she’s fearful and suspicious – you can tell she relishes the chance to emphasise Anne’s modernist sensibilities as she reads Tyndale’s Bible (in English rather than Latin, as much as she sinks her teeth into Anne’s journey of traumatic miscarriage to execution.
These elements are what stay with you, rather than the much-trumped-up kiss between Anne and Jane, and the choice to conclude with a letter to Anne’s daughter is a fitting one – a reminder of the way the drama sidesteps the obvious while avoiding being too playful or too austere. Despite some pacing issues and inconsistencies, this is a confidently understated drama, one that may not stick in your memory for decades to come, but does give some power back to the name of Anne Boleyn. Clocking in at only 3 hours, that’s success enough.
Anne Boleyn is available on My5 until 2nd August 2021.