THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL
Running Time 115 minutes
Written by Peter Morgan
Directed by Justin Chadwick
Starring Scarlett Johansson, Natalie Portman, Eric Bana and Kristin Scott-Thomas
Nobody does costume epics like the British, and when it comes to bringing their own violent, bloody political history to the screen, they lose their heads. Anne Boleyn certainly lost hers, and The Other Boleyn Girl, a sexy Tudor soap opera about the beautiful, sensual and tragic second wife of Henry VIII, provides a new reason why. A tale of intrigue, ambition and betrayal at court in the 1500’s, it’s not only about the notorious Anne (Natalie Portman), who married the king and became one of England’s most glamorous victims, but also her younger sister Mary (Scarlett Johansson), who competed for the affection of the king and bore him a child. Call it sibling revelry.
I always knew there was a younger sister named Mary, who eclipsed Anne by marrying first, but none of the literary or cinematic works about lusty Henry VIII and his six wives ever dealt with her story until the acclaimed novel by Philippa Gregory, from which this film is adapted. It is quite a story: lusty, passionate and nasty. The three Boleyn children—Anne, Mary and their brother George—are shown from the start as happy, cherubic, innocent and totally devoted to each other, romping hand in hand through the wheat fields with mischief and affection. Then, when word spreads that the king (Eric Bana) has lost interest in his wife, Katherine of Aragon, because she cannot produce the son he craves, Sir Thomas Boleyn (Mark Rylance) mutters “To get ahead in this world, you need more than fair looks and a kind heart” and, with the manipulation of her ambitious uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, pimps Anne out to become the king’s mistress. (These were the days when beautiful virgins happily allowed—even encouraged—their parents to barter them off as profitable sex lures to bring their families money and power.) Clever and ambitious, Anne will settle for nothing less than the crown, so the king banishes her. During Anne’s exile in France, sister Mary moves into the king’s bed even though she is already married to a man she doesn’t love; develops a warm and sincere attachment to her lover; and bears him a child. Alas, it’s a daughter named Catherine. Besotted with Mary but still longing for a male heir, Henry banishes Katherine of Aragon, breaks with the pope, and becomes head of the new Protestant Church of England, declaring war with Rome—all for the love of Anne. You couldn’t call it an unrequited love, because the fearless and arrogant Anne spends most of her time rutting, but alas, she cannot produce a son either, and the audience sits by nervously, waiting for Anne’s inevitable date with the executioner’s axe. Despite the heartbreak the mother (Kristin Scott-Thomas) shows as she tries to save her children from the greed that has ruined their lives, it is ironically her own brother and Anne’s own uncle, the Duke of Norfolk (David Morrissey), who seals her doom in court. Nobody had any power in the 16th century, especially women.
This story has been told before, most effectively in the brilliant Maxwell Anderson play Anne of the Thousand Days, which was turned into a stunning film in 1969 with Richard Burton and Genevieve Bujold. What gives The Other Boleyn Girl a fresh slant is the wrongful accusations leading up to Anne’s downfall. When it looks as though her inability to produce a son will lead to inescapable extermination, she tries one last desperate attempt, enlisting the aid of her own dear, loyal and distraught brother George, while her sister Mary helps to undress them both. The act is never consummated, but George’s scheming wife lies to the king, and Anne is wrongly convicted of adultery, incest and treason—three charges of which she is not guilty. True, or poetic license? Who knows. But one thing is certain: It makes for a juicy and shocking footnote.
The credentials are impressive. The writer is acclaimed Oscar winner Peter Morgan (The Queen, The Last King of Scotland and the stage success Frost/Nixon). The director is Justin Chadwick, whose series adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House has won countless television awards. The sumptuous and detailed Tudor costumes were designed by Sandy Powell, who won Oscars for Shakespeare in Love and The Aviator. And the cast works hard, if somewhat erratically. Ms. Johansson’s celebrity unbalances the equation; she’s not Anne Boleyn, yet she gets more attention in the smaller role of “the other Boleyn girl” than the ill-fated queen. As the calamitous Anne, Ms. Portman comes nowhere near the passion and poetry of Ms. Bujold. As the famously excessive, pulchritudinous and syphilitic Henry VIII, Mr. Bana, the Australian hunk, is not in the same class as the great Charles Laughton, who branded the role more than once, most memorably in Young Bess (1953). The sets encompass many of the great estates of England in a breathtaking tour guide that must have heaped a lot of coins in the coffers of the British Land Trust.
For what it’s worth, although the tyrannical and sexually insatiable hypocrite Henry VIII was succeeded by one 9-year-old son who died six years later, none of his six wives ever produced a male heir who outlived him by the time he died in 1547, at age 56. The final irony is Anne Boleyn’s daughter, Elizabeth, reigned for 45 years. But that, as you know too well, is another story.