The Other Boleyn Girl (2008) dir. Justin Chadwick
Starring: Natalie Portman, Scarlett Johanson, Eric Bana, David Morrissey
Justin Chadwick’s adaptation of Philippa Gregory’s best selling novel took some hard knocks from critics earlier this year. It’s not all that bad – standard Tutor-fare which certainly doesn’t hit the high marks of the Shekhar Kapur films (ok, that was “Elizabeth” but close enough) or the classic Hal B. Wallis films of the late 60’s/early 70’s, but the time period produces such historically significant drama, it’s still provides compelling material.
We’re back in the days of Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon. This version of the story takes place from the point of view of the Boleyn house – a family of semi-nobleman and women who desperately desire to achieve wealth, and power. There’s the two Boleyn girls Mary (Scarlett Johanson) and Anne (Natalie Portman). There’s also their brother George (Jim Sturgess) and their father and mother (Mark Rylance and Kristin Scott Thomas). The head of the household is Anne and Mary’s uncle, the Duke of Norfolk (David Morrissey).
When King Henry makes a royal visit to the Boleyn’s county, the Duke commands to Anne to seduce the King to become one of his royal courtiers. But the King takes a liking to Mary instead. Even though Mary is married, the Duke assigns her to take Anne’s place in the King’s bed. Mary’s honour to her family takes precedent and she reluctantly does the deed. Sibling rivalry is sparked in addition to the internal political war between Henry’s wife Katherine, the Catholic Church and the dueling Boleyns. The film follows the proper track of history and hits the usual benchmarks: Henry’s need for a male heir, the creation of the Church of England and those bloody beheadings.
“The Other Boleyn Girl” works best in the beginning when director Chadwick and writer Peter Morgan (“The Queen”) set up the chess pieces. Emotions are highest early when crucial decisions are made by Anne and Mary to do their uncle’s bidding. The internal turmoil of Mary separating from her husband for the sake of her family is well dramatized by Johansson. The intrigue falls off in the second half when the film fast-forwards through history hastily glancing over Henry’s divorce from Katherine, his break from the Church and his burgeoning relationship with Jane Seymour.
Natalie Portman is the stand out. Her Anne Boleyn is the opportunist, the younger of the sisters and therefore the most neglected. Her sibling rivalry with Mary moves from clichéd melodrama to surprisingly poignant fraternal companionship over the course of the film. Boleyn’s final moments before her head-chopping (that shouldn’t be a spoiler to people) is undeniably one of Portman’s finest moments of acting. Chadwick does get it all right in the end with his powerful finale.
Eric Bana’s Henry VIII could have been played by any old hack. His character is mostly inactive and insignificant and only window-dressing to the political activity of the Boleyns. In fact, the filmmakers have Anne Boleyn, without even Henry Tutor present, plan his secession from the Catholic Church. As a result Henry VIII becomes a clichéd supporting character. David Morrissey’s Duke of Norfolk is also a cliché – a power hungry son-of-a-bitch that whores out his nieces like a brothel. But where the film becomes intriguing is his rationalization of the activities. In these royal and noble courts, sons and daughters are like chess pieces, to help families gain wealth and power. Unfortunately the Duke is never humanized, he’s played as a one note, moustache-twirling conspirator.
This story has been told numerous times from many points of view : Henry VIII of course, in many film, even Oliver Cromwell and Sir Thomas More have there own versions. For me, Charles Jarrott’s “Anne of the Thousand Days” with Genevieve Bujold as Anne Boleyn is the best Boleyn film. Though “The Other Boleyn Girl”doesn’t this epic greatness, is still a decent romp through the court of the Tutors. Enjoy.
Compare this review with:
Anne of the Thousand Days
Elizabeth: the Golden Age