Friday, November 05, 2010

Pantheon movie of the month - ANNE OF THE THOUSAND DAYS (1969) - This year's girl

1969 was a year when Old Hollywood was being challenged by New Hollywood. Movies like MIDNIGHT COWBOY addressed sex openly, and featured protagonists that were unpalatable, urban and grimy. Movies like BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID took well-worn genres and reworked them, infusing them with a modern sexual sensibility, strong female characters and ambiguity. THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE is a movie so scabrous and seditious it still seems as sharp and tart today as it did then.

It might seem odd, then, that I am championing a movie which was a commercial failure, and while nominated for ten awards, remains comparably unloved and undiscussed - Charles Jarrott's debut feature ANNE OF THE THOUSAND DAYS. It is, in some ways, a deeply old-fashioned film: a lavish costume drama full filmed on location at no expense, filmed in cinemascope, and dripping with talent. It was produced by Hal Wallis at the end of a career that began in 1931, and went from silent flicks, to subversive noir, navigated the strictures of the Hays Code, and came out the other side. He'd done the greats in the old classic American style - THE MALTESE FALCON and CASABLANCA - morphed into a producer of Elvis' commercial hits - and still produced challenging genre pics - notably THE SONS OF KATIE ELDER and TRUE GRIT. He also had form when it came to challenging historical dramas - having produced the seminal Burton-O'Toole BECKET in 1964. Hal Wallis, then, knew what he was doing when he took on adapting Maxwell Anderson stage play for the screen. He wanted the big-budget lavish look of a commercial hit, but he also wanted an intellectually honest movie.

The film is yet another take on the story of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. It's a story that we are all familiar with, and have seen on screen many times: from the philosophical debate of A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS (one of my favourite films of all time); to the domestic soap opera of THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL and television's THE TUDORS. Each production has its particular angle, but few face it as head on as ANNE OF THE THOUSAND DAYS and even fewer give us as strong a pairing as Richard Burton and Geneviève Bujold. And I realise that there is an irony here. Richard Burton apparently thought his is a weak performance and hated the film. I, however, think this is a great Burton performance! 

The film opens with Cromwell asking Henry VIII for his signature on Queen Anne's death certificate, convicted of adultery, witchcraft and incest. He is torn - is she really adulterous? Should he give her another chance to bear him a son? What is God's will? And so we move into Act One. Anne is at court, in love with Percy, but the King maliciously stops her marriage so that he can amuse himself with her. She refuses, genuinely in love with Percy, and painfully aware of how the King threw over her sister once he had had his way with her. In Act Two we see Anne move from genuine opposition to the King's advances to falling in love both with him as a man - an intellectual equal with whom she gains pleasure from sparring - and equally with power - his power, and her power over him. She is not a coquette - as in THE TUDORS and THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL - but a clever girl who wants to protect her position, and not be used and rejected by her King. In the Third Act, Anne is undone. She produces a daughter and then a dead son. Henry's eye roams; Anne manoeuvres to protect Elizabeth's right to succeed him; both are undone by Cromwell. We never doubt that they love each other, but the marriage is unworkable. In the epilogue, we see the tragic consequences: Henry is given the freedom to marry Jane Seymour, but he knows he has been complict in killing the woman he loved and respected. Anne is, however, supreme, in the very final scene - it is her daughter who will reign after all.

Why do I love this film? First, because many a worse film survives thanks to the intrinsic fascination the world has with the story of Henry and Anne. Second, because the film decries the modern fashion to make Anne a capricious, manipulative woman who over-shot her place (curious misogyny that harks back to her original trial, and speaks volumes about the state of modern feminism). By contrast, Geneviève Bujold's Anne is clever, clever, clever. She is neither capricious nor manipulative. She understands the stakes, she knows the strength of her hand, and when she acts it is because she wants to protect herself from being used, and then to protect her daughter. She is rational, loving and prescient. She is, in short, the true hero of this film, and Bujold is equal to that portrayal at every turn. Th third reason why I love this film is for Burton's Henry. He is neither the arrogant boor of A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS nor the insufficiently-regal, easily-turned incompetent of THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL. Rather, he feels fully formed, and for every vice there is a virtue. Yes, he is arrogant, but he also respects Anne's intelligence. Yes, he is lustful, be he is also loyal to Anne, and genuinely grieved at her death. He does what he does not from over-weaning pride, but because he desperately wants to preserve the Tudor dynasty.

Thus, to my mind, ANNE OF A THOUSAND DAYS is one of the most even-handed and fascinating of the many portrayals of Henry and Anne. Just see them in combat! It's a sheer intellectual joy. And for dignity, pathos and power, I defy you to give me a better valedictory speech than Bujold's Anne. Just watch her un-man Wolsey in Henry's eyes. This is bravura screen-writing and acting. And better still, it is the highlight in a film that features location work, a superb score, a solid supporting cast of British character actors, and Arthur Ibbetsen's camera-work.

ANNE OF THE THOUSANDS DAYS was released in 1969 and was nominated for ten Oscars. However, it only one Best Costumes. The strength of film-making that year - and the revolution sweeping Hollywod that would make big budget costume dramas seem old-hat, is shown by a quick survey of the films it lost to in the other categories: MIDNIGHT COWBOY, TRUE GRIT, THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE, THEY SHOOT HORSES DON'T THEY, BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID, HELLO DOLLY!

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