Sunday, September 15, 2013

Anna Boleyn

Netflix has been steadily improving their instant offerings in classic and silent films, and this week I took the opportunity to stream "Anna Boleyn", a 1920 German flick from Ernst Lubitsch with a remarkably good-looking print.

It's an interesting take on the Tudor story.  As histfic, it's got its weaknesses, as an awful lot of Tudor tellings do for some reason (as if the truth were insufficiently fascinating and dramatic) - but, in this case, the inaccuracies themselves make for a good enough story, so suspending disbelief far enough to simply disbelieve this is even Henry and Anne works out fine.

In fact, there is a large cast of true historical figures, and a rather long running time for a movie of the period (nearly two hours).  Anne's early relationship with Harry Percy is lost, with Henry Norris essentially taking his place.  The musician Mark Smeaton is, interestingly, one of the villains of the piece, with the Duke of Norfolk.  And of course there is Great Harry, who's most often villainized, and this film is no exception.

This film has aged very well indeed both in terms of its condition, but its effectiveness (*with caveats).  The casting, only in Anna's case, may not have survived quite as successfully.  Henny Porten was about thirty when she played the role, and looks it from the first frame (there is also a massive compression in time in this film, by the way; the whole film takes place in something like one year, here; where Anne's own drama in life spanned 1526-36).  Though we have plenty of authority that Ann herself may not have been a beauty of the fashion of the time, it's well documented that she was lively and charming, and many did describe her as beautiful.  A charisma of some sort seems necessary for the part - even with the liberties taken with her character.  Henry, as portrayed in this film, was highly interested in cute young things, and Anna here seems hardly to be cute, young, nor personally magnetic.  She's strictly a pawn, a victim.  Though that itself has intriguing storytelling possibilities (portraying Anne as the creature of others, the woman limited by her time and her gender), it isn't fully realized here.  Even what little autonomy she attempts to assert in this telling is fleeting.

Anne is outcast from the moment she arrives at the English court, hapless against the lust of a king she (in this story) does not want at all.  Given a crown she prefers not to have, Anna doesn't do much with it; her having it at all seems fairly arbitrary, given that the King is happy to lust without putting it on every girl he goes for.  Anne's specialness is not expressed here.  Whatever may be said of The Boleyn, she was always described as vivacious, and indeed it is her very autonomy which dis-enamored her to so many and ended by causing her downfall.

Interestingly, the Jane Seymour storyline is as time-compressed and liberty-taken as Anna's, but I have to admit I enjoyed seeing a portrayal that fell significantly short of sainting her.  Perfect, plain Jane gets tiresome to watch.

(*)  And now for a caveat.  Alongside the storytelling, the performances may bear discussion.  Particularly from Ms. Portin, and toward the end of the film especially, the thespian standards of the time and a general look which seems overwrought to our view in the 21st century do stand out.  These conventions don't bother me at all, but if you're offput by "what we think" silent film looks like, this movie won't dispel those expectations.  I won't recommend it except to say it does have its rewards.

The production design here is particularly good overall.  Though some of the women's headdresses occasionally veer 150 years off course (into the 14th century, or outright fantasy) and one dress has an Elizabethan cut and all of them lack the partlet, the silhouette stays fairly accurate.  The textiles appear appropriate, though it may be hard to tell (even with the quality of the reproduction, hundred-year-old filmstock can only tell so much) whether it's rigorously accurate.  The men in particular tend to be correctly costumed, and many of Henry's own iconic hats do make their appearances.

The soundtrack is strictly piano/melodic (no sound effects) and is wall-to-wall; there isn't a single pause in the duration of the film.  It's not bad music, but I wouldn't have minded a rest from time to time, being someone who finds the "silent" part of silent film to be worthwhile dramatically.  The visuals are crisp - however, blue intertitles (the dialog cards between live action) in elaborate goth-esque font on a black background are no favor to ageing eyes.  The rather saturated sepia and blue color washes can be slightly distracting at times, but the impressiveness of the images overall is pretty amazing for a 93-year-old film.

The sets have a very different aesthetic to the romantic atmospheres we've grown used to in historical productions, and their practical feel does the story a lot of favors.  Though there are bits of late-anachronistic designs creeping in, which feel more 17th-century than they should, there are also some rough-hewn pieces (particularly at the joust) which actually lend a more medieval feel, and that is a *good* thing. (See the Aristotle link here and this post for thoughts on why things older than the time period of a setting are appropriate.)  If this is an example of film set recycling/reuse, it's a particularly effective series of choices.  If it is all original design to this film, it may be the more impressive for showing such a swath of styles and levels of luxury.

As I said, if you aren't interested already in silent, German, or historical films, this will not be your gateway drug.  However, I'd recommend it as an artifact - and, for those who can accept the terms - as entertainment.  Obviously not as history.  If you do watch it, or have, let me know what you think.

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