I am rather sketchy on the details of the Tudor period but, whilst my ignorance about most historical eras is generally an embarrassment in polite company (and when playing Trivial Pursuits) I believe it was a positive boon in watching The Other Boleyn Girl, where, unencumbered by those pesky facts, I could get swept away by this ridiculous, rollicking, period piece centred around Henry VIII’s second wife, Anne Boleyn (played by Natalie Portman) and her lesser known sister, Mary (Scarlett Johansson)
Morgan manufactures a story that charges on at full pelt, raising issues of patriarchy, politics and personal power in between the bodice-ripping sex and intrigue.
Adapted from Phillipa Gregory’s 2001 historical novel (also made into a BBC drama in 2003) The Other Boleyn Girl begins with Anne and Mary as children: different in looks and temperament, their father imagines Mary to lead a simple life, while he suspects that the wilful Anne is destined for greater things.
Cut to many years later, the pair are grown and their father (Mark Rylance), and uncle, the Duke of Norfolk (David Morrissey) spy a chance to further the family name. Henry VIII (Eric Bana) is tiring of his wife, Katherine of Aragon (Ana Torent) and the ambitious and beautiful Anne may be just the distraction he needs. So Henry is invited to their home – cue the dramatic, thundering hooves of the King’s ten-thousand men – and Anne sets about enchanting him. But when the plan goes awry, and Mary catches his eyes, the entire family are summoned to the King’s court where, to Anne’s fury, it is the younger sister who is taken as Henry’s mistress, ushering in a tale of rivalry, betrayal, passion and manipulation. Oh and incest. Sort of.
The Other Boleyn Girl is directed by Justin Chadwick from a screenplay written by David Morgan (The Queen), (which when it comes to historical accuracy, would have David Starkey choking on his pic’n’mix). Morgan manufactures a story that charges on at full pelt, raising issues of patriarchy, politics and personal power in between the bodice-ripping sex and intrigue, played out with an earthy approach and oddly contemporary dialogue – like The Tudors meets EastEnders.
Subtle, this film isn’t. Mary, who is blonde and ergo wholesome, is one minute horrified at being forcibly removed from husband and home, the next, she’s in love with the monarch. Fair dos – as Henry, who I distinctly remember from history books as being fat and ginger, is here a dark, chiselled and (deep-down) sensitive soul, who can, inevitably, have any woman he wants just by pointing at her (a bit like Russell Brand perhaps) but who forms a lasting bond with Mary due to them both being the younger sibling, a little difficult to swallow, not least because in real life Mary was the elder.
But it is Henry’s power that Anne makes use of, manipulating the man who can have anything by refusing to be his. Their relationship lacks actual passion, fuelled instead by naked power, steely desire and cunning manipulation. While this seems a slightly unconvincing set up, given that Henry changed the course of history in breaking with Rome to make Anne his wife, it does form a convenient counterpoint to the King’s tender relationship with Mary.
Casting two such young and beautiful leading ladies as Portman and Johansson in a costume drama about vying siblings is a smart way to get bums on seats, and the two are fine actors, but, alas, they lack the gravitas needed to add depth to this film. Their relationship with brother, George (Jim Strugess) is appealing and well realised. Bana broods impressively as Henry but he isn’t extreme enough in charisma or in menace to really steal the film.
After two American female leads and a Aussie King, it is with some relief that we greet Kristin Scott Thomas, who makes a good fist of the Boleyn sisters’ rightfully anxious mother. Her role is undermined by screen husband, played by Mark Rylance, who has an interesting interplay with his brother in law, but who is so limp and fey he seems to have stepped straight off a Monty Python sketch.
For all those faults (and many more besides), The Other Boleyn Girl is still a captivating and enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours, a film which makes brutal and colourful work of the bare bones of history, and doesn’t let the facts get in the way of a damn good story.
In fact, the audience would be forgiven in thinking that the filmmakers have gone one step too far in picturing Anne sporting a Carrie Bradshaw-esque ‘B’ around her neck – but this detail, hilariously, is one, at least, that’s factually correct.
The Other Boleyn Girl is out now