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Ooh, grab the Ben & Jerry’s and a bowl of macadamias, someone made a movie of Philippa Gregory’s best-selling Tudor age potboiler, The Other Boleyn Girl. Woo, have I been waiting for this one. Having read all five in the series, I always felt the first book was imminently filmable, and it seems that despite a few hiccups, I was right. 

Gregory’s lush, steamy tale of the Boleyn sisters, the famous Anne and the lesser-known Mary, explores the love and rivalry between siblings, especially when both are sought after by King Henry VIII. Differing from the famous portrait by Holbein that most folks think of when they see Henry, hands on hips in a wide-legged stance daring anyone to make comment on his weight issues. Gregory’s Henry was the one we never hear about, the young, virile man once considered the most handsome prince in Christendom. Powerful, glamourous and very much in his prime, catching his eye was the goal of many a court maiden – and her family – as gaining Henry’s favour was the fast track to success and security.  

The film opens with a flashback of the three innocent Boleyn children playing happily together (- Brother George rounds out the set), blissfully unaware that even at this tender age, their father schemes for the strategic marriage of each child, placing all his hopes on the favoured Anne. Family influence plays a huge role in this drama; it’s made painfully clear that women of this time were not much more very attractive chess pieces to be moved advantageously about the boards of status and wealth. Neither Anne nor Mary is exempt, as Mary, now in her teens, is married off to William Carey, scion of a well-off family who was first proposed for Anne, but Daddy Boleyn decides she’s got bigger fish to fry. Indeed when the girls’ uncle, the Duke of Norfolk arrives with the news that King Henry may be in the market for a new mistress, Anne receives her marching orders like a good soldier and isn’t entirely reluctant at the prospect. King Henry pays a visit to Chez Boleyn and Anne is placed before him like a steak on a silver platter. Mary is tucked away; all the King’s attention must be focused on her sister. Sadly for the Boleyns, the spirited Anne has none of the polish to hone her outlandish, youthful energy and the visit is a complete disaster. Still, the unimaginable happens and Henry takes an interest in the gentle, unambitious Mary, inviting the entire Boleyn clan to court with Mary installed as lady-in-waiting to Queen Katherine. All the better to see you with, my dear. The happily married girl has no desire to participate in her family’s immoral pandering, but abetted by her own weak-willed husband, what the Boleyns say goes and so goes Mary and the humiliated Anne, whose twinges of jealousy toward her sister for capturing the King’s attention fester with her. Upon arrival at court, the inevitable occurs and Mary becomes the King’s mistress. Even while her feelings for the Monarch grow under his aggressive wooing and unexpected tenderness, Mary is above all an agent for her family and is forced to give graphic reports of her bedtime adventures with Henry. While the under-the-sheets strategy is being played out, the rambunctious Anne has found a love of her own and secretly marries him, resulting in Anne’s banishment to the French court to save her from further shame.

The passage of time is a blur in the film and it isn’t long before Mary does indeed become pregnant with the heir that Henry so desperately needs to ensure his reign. This should have ensured Mary’s status, but no one could count on the return of Anne and the wiles and sophistication she brings back from France. Henry is instantly beguiled with the intoxicating Anne, and Mary is soon the one pushed into the background, baby or no. The rest of the film is all Anne’s, as her schemes for a permanent place in the King’s life outstrip even those of her grasping uncle and father. She will be Queen, and never bends to the overwhelming will of the King, carefully rejecting the pretty tokens and baubles that fell lesser women, including her sister. The dynamic between the sisters is strained and Anne’s coldness toward Mary is the stuff of bitter rivalry. One of Anne’s conditions for surrender to Henry is his utter dismissal of Mary from his thoughts, which he does even to the point of turning his back on Mary as she gives birth to the son he craves. The humiliated is now humiliator, as Anne does finally wear the crown and patronises Mary, adopting the son Mary shares with Henry. Still, Henry is king, and for all the by-blows he can spawn all over Britain, he still needs a legitimate male heir to pass his kingdom to and Anne is unable to do give him one (- instead she gives birth to a mere girl called Elizabeth). Anne is driven to madness as history repeats itself and she finds Henry as inconstant to her as he was to Queen Katherine. Enemies on all sides, the only ones Anne can trust are her siblings, George and Mary, and in her desperation, Anne is moved to commit an act that seals the fate of all three forever.

Woo lawdy, did I lie about the need for snackage? Drama, Drama, Drama. The Other Boleyn Girl was like watching my summer reading on a 40-foot screen in glorious, blooming colour, acted by three of the day’s most beautiful stars doing some of the best work in fabulous period costumes. What’s bad about this? Well, I would advise history buffs to steer far clear of this bad girl. Leave your need for accuracy at the door. Philippa Gregory writes historical novels, not biographies, there’s no point being put out by a little fast and loose retelling of the facts. The Other Boleyn Girl is essentially a Cliff Notes version of the rise and reign of Anne Boleyn. Events like Henry’s divorce from both Queen Katherine and the Catholic Church that in reality took nearly a decade pass in what seems like months. I suppose everything happens at whiplash speed to keep the attention of the audience who isn’t bothered about such trivia. This is the Tudors as a romantic, sexy soap opera for people who may not know what’s buried under the Chapel of St. Peter Ad Vincula in London, and as such, it’s terribly fun.

Never in a million years would I have imagined Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson in the same film as sisters. The two acclaimed young actresses are physically like night and day with Natalie’s sharper, sophisticated, dark-eyed beauty opposite Scarlett’s softer, golden blondeness and voluptuous curves. Even their acting styles are markedly different, Portman seeming more of a technician, hitting marks and giving straight line readings and Johansson’s style being more naturalistic and instinctive: Each approach does perfect justice to the personalities of their characters, Anne, the canny tactician and Mary, who wears her heart on her puffy sleeve. Historical paintings bear out the physical differences between slim brunette Anne and fair-haired Mary Boleyn. Portman and Johansson are utterly believable as siblings and compliment each other perfectly. Outside of a few lapses in accent, both are wonderful here. Add to this equation the painfully handsome Eric Bana as Henry VIII and it’s clear that this film aimed to be as accessible as possible by employing such gorgeous stars. As for Bana’s Henry, I enjoyed seeing a thoughtful, sensitive King who is pained over his treatment of the loyal Queen Katherine. Yet Bana is all masculinity and one realises quickly that when Anne toys with Henry, it’s akin to yanking the tail of a lion. Bana’s Henry is powerful and truly regal, and it’s doubtful that any other cinematic Henry VIII’s sex scenes were as steamy – or watchable. I only wish they’d given him more to do than brood. Spanish actress Ana Torrent deserves a special mention as the most impressive and convincing Katherine of Aragon put to film. Her sensitive, intelligent portrayal of Katherine is that of a woman living the nightmare of losing her husband to a younger woman. While clearly in love and suffering, Torrent’s Katherine is indeed a born ruler, dignified and iron-willed, the daughter of Queen Isabella of Spain humbles the Boleyn upstarts with a razor wit. I’d love to see Torrent in a film based solely on Katherine’s life. Everyone looks perfectly at home in their splendid, imposing costumes. The jewel-coloured velvets and satin brocades become more luxurious as the sisters’ fortunes rise. The production design on the film is wonderful: How beautifully many of the scenes were shot in rich, saturated colours, almost as if the frames directly came from the covers of Gregory’s novels.

The story of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn has been told many times by Hollywood, and will surely be told again, The Other Boleyn Girl shows us a different angle on the tale and gives it a new perspective and with its beautiful young cast the film is bound to interest younger audiences. The condensed history of the script is inoffensive enough for Tudor buffs to enjoy and is entertaining in any measure. It’s the performances and unlikely chemistry of the Misses Portman and Johansson that is the real standout in The Other Boleyn Girl, and does not disappoint. This adaptation of Philippa Gregory’s historical novel is a delicious cinematic bon-bon. Make sure you have some when you watch this in the theatre.

 

~ Mighty Ganesha

Feb 7th 2008

 

Chitlins, we're thrilled to share our visit with the stars of The Other Boleyn Girl, Natalie Portman, Scarlett Johansson and the lovely Eric Bana. Click here for some interview goodness

 

 

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(Courtesy of  Columbia Pictures)