For Reel

The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933)
June 19, 2016, 7:50 pm
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , ,

Director: Alexander Korda
3.5 Stars
The Private Life of Henry VIIIThe Private Life of Henry VIII is largely responsible for two of the most lasting legacies of the British film industry: producer/director Alexander Korda and the great Charles Laughton, who gave an equally campy, memorable performance the year before in horror classic Island of Lost Souls. Much of the film’s appeal rests on Laughton’s shoulders—it’s a performance of unparalleled bombastic energy, with Laughton’s every action and line escaping from the man like a small explosion. Early on, it plays like a film purely about unmitigated consumption, with Henry’s gluttonous feasting mirrored by the parade of wives that the opening title cards promise. But very few critics of the time or modern commenters have remarked on just how sad Laughton’s performance becomes by the end. His Henry is a man who was born into an admirable position but lacks any of the social graces or charms of his subjects. The final sequence, in which Henry is viewed as an old man mourning his failure to have lived a fulfilling life, plays as emotionally true based solely on the fact that his relationship with Katherine Howard (Binnie Barnes) seemed to transform him from a single-minded blowhard to a genuinely sensitive, ever-heartbroken ruler. Discussing the film as a tragedy almost seems an injustice to how amusing it is to watch Laughton in the role (his delivery of the last line of the film plays like a punchline targeted directly at the audience), and yet the more dramatic scenes seem like the most complete in attempting to find something human about the man preserved by Holbein as a larger-than-life, pompous monarch.