Reflection: ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’

Mary (Scarlett Johansson) and Anne (Natalie Portman) prepare to meet King Henry VIII

Mary (Scarlett Johansson) and Anne (Natalie Portman) prepare to meet King Henry VIII; if only the rest of the film could be as vibrant as their dresses

Justin Chadwick‘s The Other Boleyn Girl (2008) opens with three little children playing in a golden field, their parents close at hand discussing the futures of the girls–meaning, of course, who they will marry. We recognize from the parents’ dialogue that the children are the Boleyn kids, Anne, Mary, and George; thus we know immediately that this tale is going to be sordid and end quite unhappily. After all, Anne Boleyn, though she did give birth to one of the most famous monarchs in history, is best remembered for losing her head at the request of her husband, King Henry VIII. And so, Chadwick’s film–like the novel it was adapted from–has the difficult task of accurately depicting the sordid stories of Anne and Mary Boleyn and Henry VIII without exploiting the more repugnant aspects of history and sinking to the depths of melodrama.

Overall, Chadwick completes this task competently. There are times when melodrama starts to rear its ugly head, but these moments are fortunately fleeting. There is some good acting in the film, particularly by Kristin Scott Thomas as Elizabeth Boleyn and Eric Bana as Henry VIII. Neither of these actors once bow to sappiness, though their roles ostensibly call for it often. There is also a certain on-screen chemistry between Scarlett Johansson (as Mary Boleyn) and Natalie Portman (as the infamous Anne Boleyn) that allows the actresses to believably clash or embrace, depending on the situation. The dialogue might be silly and a bit anachronistic at times, but at least Johansson and Portman feel like sisters; this is a necessity the film needs to pull off, and it does so wonderfully.  I will say, however, that Portman’s acting does at times seem artificial and overdone, which is upsetting because she used to seem so natural in her roles as a young girl (i.e., Leon: the Professional) before she was corrupted by the likes of George Lucas and His Amazing Technicolor Special Effects Prequels. Hopefully this is just a phase she is going through and will soon snap out of it and return to her roots as a natural actress.

Eric Bana as King Henry VIII

Eric Bana as King Henry VIII

The set and costume design is standard for Tudor-England pieces: dark, looming castles, enough puffy shirts to give Jerry Seinfeld a nightmare, and lots of codpieces. But unlike Shekhar Kapur‘s magnificent Elizabeth (1998), The Other Boleyn Girl does not offer much vibrancy in its color schemes, so unless the scene happens to be outdoors in the country (which we are treated to at least a couple of times), we are bombarded with utterly drab grays and greens. Had we just a bit more variety of color, the film might have been a bit more engaging and memorable.

The plot more or less follows the overall historical story arc of Henry and the Boleyn girls, though there are several moments of poetic license. Take, for instance, the love that is apparently shared by Henry and Mary: at first, Mary is disgusted by the new role as His Majesty’s Mistress, particularly because she’s just recently been married, but after she and Henry have sex a couple of times, she’s suddenly madly in love with him. Frankly, knowing what I do about Henry, it’s safe to say that he got around, but I find it hard to believe that he was that good. Also, while it is historically accurate that Anne and her brother George (Jim Sturgess) were technically executed for allegedly committing incest, I tend to not believe the accusation; it reeks of the types of political lies that rampaged through royal courts of the time. More than likely the charge was fabricated in order to give Henry an excuse to be rid of Anne, who could apparently not bear him a son (though she did give him a daughter who was probably more successful than any son would have been). Even so, the film becomes almost cringe-worthy in a scene in which Anne and George actually attempt to have sex in hopes of impregnating Anne with a boy, thus giving Henry a reason to keep her around. Thankfully, they do not go through with the ordeal. This would have been an entirely different film if they had.

The Other Boleyn Girl is not the extravagant, sordid tale I look for in narratives about the Tudors. It is a good film, but not a great one. Had he even slightly tweaked some of the acting,  set and costume designs, and some of the more incredulous elements of the plot, Chadwick would have had an engaging and memorable film. Instead, we have a somewhat drab and superficial account of the Boleyn-Tudor saga with some traces of good acting and silly if nevertheless enjoyable dialogue. I was quite taken, however, by the ending of the film: like in its opening sequence, we see three children running through a field of golden grass. We know that these are not Anne, Mary, and George this time, though, for Mary and her new husband are walking close at hand. The last shot freezes upon one of the children, a particularly radiantly red-haired little girl who is named, we are told by the caption, Elizabeth. If Chadwick had stuck closer to poignant moments like these and steered clear of the more insidious and melodramatic elements of the plot, The Other Boleyn Girl just may have been a masterpiece; and while it is far from being complete codswallop, it is also far from being great.

The Girl Who Would Be Queen

The Girl Who Would Be Queen

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