Justin Chadwick's 'The Other Boleyn Girl' (2008)

Based on the novel by Philippa Gregory, The Other Boleyn Girl attempts to explore the relationships between Henry VIII and two sisters: Anne Boleyn, whom he married, and her sister Mary, with whom Henry had an affair while he was married to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. As a historical drama, the film doesn't paint a very detailed portrait of the creation of The Church of England and Anne Boleyn's fall into disgrace, but the film also fails as a character study, which I believe is its true purpose. In fact, the film feels like half of it's one and half is the other. However, director Justin Chadwick and screenplay writer Peter Morgan do manage to convey the slippery, and potentially deadly, slope of political maneuvering during this time period. Nearly everyone in this film becomes the victim of manipulation for the purpose of political gain, underscoring in particular women's complete lack of autonomy in Tudor England.

Given the name of the film, I expected The Other Boleyn Girl to be more about the other Boleyn girl. Sure, Mary plays a part in the proceedings, but as she did in life Anne overshadows her. Mary is given one characterization very early in the film, and she never changes. Or maybe she does. I'm not sure. I feel like Mary's emotions, reactions, and rationale become lost at several points during the film. Mary unflaggingly comes to her sister's aide, speaking to the King on her behalf even though Anne used her compulsory bedrest during her pregnancy with Henry's child as an opportunity to seduce him. The filmmakers never explore Mary's emotions at confronting her former lover who abandoned her to plead for clemency for her sister who betrayed her. Mary's situation is absolutely portrayed as pitiable, but the abuse she suffers seems small in comparison to what happens to her sister. Though Anne is certainly the anti-hero of this story, Chadwick colors her as a young woman who perishes at her own hand in a way, overcome by the cruelties of a world she fought to gain entry to but ultimately was not ready for or able to manage.

While Henry VIII is certainly the most prominent historical figure in the film, I feel like he is the least important character. I think the center of the film, at least in a character-study context, is the relationship between Mary and Anne and more broadly their family. In this version of the Boleyn sisters' story, Henry the person is less important than Henry the King. Mary and Anne come to their respective fates because someone finds the idea of power titillating and tries to cultivate a relationship with the king to achieve it. Had I written and directed this material I think I would have chosen to greatly reduce Henry's part and give him no or very few lines. I would have filmed him from behind most of the time, always when he was speaking, and probably only shown his face in the scene in which Anne argues for her life in front of the jury. Pushing Henry to the background in this way I think would allow the true meat of the story to come to the foreground.

The acting failed to impress me. Granted, I think that Mary is depressingly underdeveloped, but Scarlett Johansson barely manages to leave an impression. As Henry, Eric Bana is decent but his performance never captivated me and I never connected with his character. Of the three leads, Natalie Portman's performance is the only one the audience can really grab onto, and she does a fair job presenting Anne as complex and ultimately sympathetic, though her English accent is by far the weakest of the bunch. But I have to say that I thought she did improve in comparison to V for Vendetta. I also liked Kristin Scott Thomas as the Boleyns' mother, but her character almost felt like an anachronism, a voice of modern feminism inserted into the story to connect with contemporary audiences.

Though The Other Boleyn Girl does not succeed completely, the production is visually splendid. I like the period costumes in particular, but I think those inverted visors the women wear on their heads look ridiculous. Even though it's a little light on historical details, the film also acts as an interesting prequel of sorts to Elizabeth and Elizabeth: The Golden Age.
And just for fun, here's some information about Henry's wives:
  1. Catherine of Aragon: daughter of Queen Isabella I of Spain, mother of Queen Mary I; Henry VII originally arranged a betrothal between her and Henry VIII's older brother Arthur, who passed away from illness, to form an alliance with Spain; as a devout Catholic, refused to acknowledge Henry's subsequent marriage to Anne Boleyn until her death, even though doing so would have meant better quarters and permission to see her daughter; marriage annulled by Henry for failure to produce a male heir.
  2. Anne Boleyn: mother of Queen Elizabeth I; refused to become Henry's mistress and his infatuation with her led to Henry's eventual break from the Catholic Church and creation of The Church of England; after failing to produce a male heir and a turbulent marriage, Henry declared that their union had been a product of witchcraft; beheaded on charges of adultery, incest, and high treason.
  3. Jane Seymour: mother of King Edward VI; mistress to Henry during his marriage to Anne; Henry considered her his "true" wife because she produced his only male heir and he was buried next to her; died from an infection after giving birth to her son.
  4. Anne of Cleves: sister of the Duke of Cleves of Germany; was suggested to Henry as a possible wife because of her brother's Protestant beliefs, thus making him a potential ally should a Roman Catholic attack against England occur; found completely unattractive by Henry upon her arrival in England; marriage annulled by Henry and was given property.
  5. Catherine Howard: had an extra-marital affair with Henry's courtier and a pre-marital affair with another man, who maliciously revealed their indiscretions to a member of Henry's court investigating her relationship with the courtier; beheaded on charges of adultery.
  6. Catherine Parr: was widowed twice before marrying Henry, making her quite wealthy; though vocally disagreeing with Henry about religion, managed to reconcile him with his daughters, which led to them being restored to the line of succession; survived Henry and married a former lover.
Six Wives of Henry VIII