Anne Boleyn Actors Ranked From Low-Rent to Regal

TikTok is abuzz with Natalie Dormer in The Tudors, but was she really the best movie and TV Anne Boleyn?

Claire Foy in Wolf Hall, Natalie Dormer in The Tudors, Genevieve Bujold in Anne of the Thousand Days
Photo: BBC, Showtime, Hal Wallis Productions

Anne Boleyn has been played on screen since the silent movie era. She’s been portrayed as a six-fingered boo-hiss villain, a Saturday Night Live punchline, a ghost haunting Princess Diana, and in recent stage musical Six, a Kate Nash-style aitch-dropping popstrel.

Now, Henry VIII’s second wife is trending on TikTok as a new generation gets sucked into the scandals of the Tudor court and stakes their allegiance to her, the Spanish queen unseated for her, the simpering virgin who followed her, or any other player during this eventful period in history when the king of England made the position of queen a revolving door. One thing the new Tudor fans seem to agree upon is that they aren’t #TeamHenry.

Leaving aside most of the one-note portrayals and the TV shows and movies in which Anne Sans Tête is only a bit player in somebody else’s story (Vanessa Redgrave in A Man for All Seasons, Oona Kirsch in God’s Outlaw, Alice Nokes in The Spanish Princess…) below are the on-screen portrayals of Anne Boleyn that did more than just stick her shivering on the executioner’s scaffold, ranked from ropey to downright regal.

10. Natalie Portman in The Other Boleyn Girl (2008)

Is it damning with faint praise to say that Natalie Portman’s performance is the best thing about this lightweight, soapy picture? Perhaps so, but that doesn’t make it any less true. Portman did what she could with a flat script and an alien accent, but she’d needed to have worked a miracle to lift this two-dimensional Anne off the screen.

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Adapted from Philippa Gregory’s best-selling historical novel, The Other Boleyn Girl reduces this whole story to a blonde vs brunette cat fight between two sisters embodying that old virgin/whore chestnut. It throws out the history books (counter-factually making Anne the older sister to Mary in service of the experience vs innocence set-up) and presents Anne as a scheming baddie who calculates her way into Henry’s bed with the precision of a missile launch. Natalie Portman is arguably the most beautiful on-screen Boleyn, but divorced of context and depth, when her Anne loses that stunning head it’s hard to feel anything much at all.

9. Charlotte Rampling in Henry VIII and His Six Wives (1972)

Casting the young Charlotte Rampling – who, like Anne Boleyn, is a fluent French speaker who spent time growing up in France – was a smart move for this film remake of the 1970 TV series, but that’s where the praise ends.

Like most of the cast, Rampling is wasted here in a rushed run-through of Henry’s marriages that’s forced to resort to shorthand. This Anne is the six-fingered witch of Catholic propaganda, and very little else. It’s a whistle-stop tour that stuffs this eventful period into too small a space and leaves little doubt as to Anne’s guilt at her trial. This script has made up its mind on Anne, and director Waris Hussein (also known for Doctor Who) doesn’t have the runtime for exploration or complexity. The blackface masque scenes, though perhaps period-appropriate, clearly haven’t aged well either.

8. Merle Oberon in The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933)

This United Artists picture starts with the unpromising legend “Henry VIII had six wives. Catherine of Aragon was the first; but her story is of no particular interest.” That’s us told then. As Charles Laughton’s Henry VIII might say: next!

The film does manage to find a teensy bit more interest in Anne’s story, or rather, in her death. Wuthering Heights’ Merle Oberon is only around for 15 minutes before she’s led to the scaffold but her screen presence is such that she makes her mark even with just a handful of lines. Dressing with her ladies and wryly joking that her “Anne Sans Tête” nickname has already been decided, Oberon’s Anne strikes a modern, ironic tone, especially compared to the airhead brat portrayal of Jane Seymour. If only the film found her more fascinating, we might have had more of her.

7. Helena Bonham Carter in Henry VIII (2003)

Anybody upset by Australians Keith Mitchell and Eric Bana being cast as Henry VIII may rethink their objections when they see Englishman Ray Winstone in the role. Physically, Winstone fits the bill. His Henry is vain, macho, athletic and imposing on horseback – but being petitioned at court and negotiating with his lieutenants, he comes across more growly East-End bully than divine scholar.

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Bonham Carter makes a decent Anne. She’s self-possessed, quick-witted and confident in her ability to run rings around Henry, but the fundamental mismatch and lack of chemistry between the royal pair lets her down here. That’s not to say this two-part ITV movie from The Other Boleyn Girl screenwriter (and creator of The Crown) Peter Morgan isn’t still worth a look, if nothing else for David Suchet as Cardinal Wolsey, and a young Emily Blunt as Catherine Howard.

6. Jodie Turner Smith in Anne Boleyn (2021)

This Channel 5 three-parter was less interested in the specific story of Anne Boleyn than in the generalised story of a powerful woman being othered by the court and brought down by a cabal of men. Viewed in that way, it did its job – albeit without great production values and with an over-reliance on clunky visual metaphors. (A horse is beheaded for not bearing the king a male heir… well, not quite, but the foreshadowing is visible from space).

Queen & Slim and The Neon Demon’s Jodie Turner Smith makes a regal Anne who carries the miniseries’ clunkier moments with presence, beauty and backbone, but really she doesn’t stand a chance in competition against the drama’s grave tone and self-satisfied symbolism. Her character is knotty but makes some baffling choices (getting off with Jane Seymour and ordering the deaths of a load of peacocks), while Mark Stanley’s Henry VIII is off-puttingly whiny and easily overpowered. It’s all very Important and Serious and doesn’t achieve a great deal.

5. Jodhi May in The Other Boleyn Girl (2003)

Before the big Hollywood version came this BBC adaptation of Philippa Gregory’s hit historical novel starring Jodhi May and Natascha McElhone as the Boleyn sisters. What it lacks in budget it makes up for in performance, especially from Jodhi May as Anne and Jared Harris as Henry VIII. A charismatic May makes Anne multi-dimensional, at times cunning and ambitious but also girlish and vulnerable. She’s much more than just a vixen or victim, and satisfyingly human.

Far less glossy than the later movie adaptation, with hand-held cameras and claustrophobic framing, it strives for intimacy and mostly achieves it. The gimmick of having May and McElhone speak lines confessionally straight to camera would doubtless have earned it unimaginative Fleabag comparisons if it hadn’t aired over a decade before the Phoebe Waller-Bridge show.

4. Dorothy Tutin in The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1970)

Personal mileage will vary when it comes to the stagey, shouty style of 1970s BBC historical drama (see: I, Claudius for more on that), but cope with the thespians pro-ject-ing, and this is a very decent TV play. It’s one of a six-part BBC Two series that dedicated an episode to each of Henry VIII’s wives, and which was shrunk into a less successful feature film two years later (see above). It’s one of the few 20th century productions that attempts to give Anne Boleyn layers, achieved thanks to Dorothy Tutin’s performance.

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Tutin is bewitching as the Anne to Keith Mitchell’s Henry. She creates a changeable character who convincingly shifts from devilish to desperate. With Henry, she’s both a cajoling child (despite Tutin having over a decade on most of the Annes on this list) and a seductress. With the court, she’s proud and cruel, yes, but also painfully isolated. Her trial scenes are some of the most affecting out there.

3. Geneviève Bujold in Anne of the Thousand Days (1969)

Not a great film, but beloved by a vocal few who have Geneviève Bujold to thank for their Tudor history obsession. This Richard Burton-starring historical drama is theatrical and kind of superficial but oh, Bujold is a delight. The Academy obviously agreed, and nominated her for Best Actress for the part (though gave it to Maggie Smith for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie).

This Anne isn’t a scheming vixen but reluctant and pimped out by her traitorous family to Burton’s overbearing king. She’s a modern heroine – spunky and charismatic and doing what she can to manoeuvre inside the prison of court. The film’s all about her journey as she’s resentfully worn down and betrayed, going from feisty kid to power-corrupted queen.

2. Natalie Dormer in The Tudors (2007 – 2008)

Many would place Dormer top of this list, and all power to them. She makes an excellent Anne Boleyn in a series that finally devotes enough time to understanding a much-discussed historical figure. This Anne isn’t a cameo appearance, but a rich portrait of a woman exploited by her family to raise them up in the precarious hierarchy of the Tudor court.

With great costumes, extravagant wigs, a Showtime gloss, and loads of sex, The Tudors is definitely the most accessibly entertaining telling of Henry VIII’s story. Subtlety isn’t the goal here, which is clear from the emphatic line delivery and overegged dialogue. Dormer is well able for all of it, showing why she was also the perfect choice to play clever schemer Margaery Tyrell in Game of Thrones. She gets under Anne’s skin, making us understand her perilous place at court and desperation to hold on to power, as well as her pain when cast aside by Jonathan Rhys Meyers as the king. Almost perfection.

1. Claire Foy in Wolf Hall (2015)

Actual perfection. No other Anne Boleyn actor manages to combine cruelty with vulnerability as convincingly as Claire Foy in Wolf Hall. We might be more used to seeing Foy play a very different kind of queen as Elizabeth II in series one and two of The Crown, but her thorny, arrogant, terrified Anne Boleyn is the one it’s impossible to forget.

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Foy’s is also the finest execution scene on record. Styled with no music and just the rattling wind blowing as she shivers on the scaffold, she delivers a speech about the king’s great mercy and you hear every word as its opposite. Before that, as a calculating queen bee in court, taking glee in her enemies’ pain and playing to the crowd, she’s captivating. Watchful, vindictive, with a sharp tongue and driven by spite and ambition, it’s impossible to take your eyes off her – or, for that matter, off her weird, compelling double act with Mark Rylance’s “Cremuel”.

Crucially, Foy retains a pool of humanity beneath the poison, so that when her Anne loses yet another pregnancy, or begins to fear for her life, you also feel her pain. It’s just a pity that history dictates she can’t come back for the follow-up series.