The Other Boleyn Girl

The Other Boleyn Girl


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

One of the few facts English schoolchildren reliably learn about History is that King Henry VIII had six wives. Six. That's Katherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, Catherine Howard and Catherine Parr. What they don't teach in school is that he also had many mistresses, among them Anne Boleyn's own sister, Mary. Though his first marriage was stable for a long time, Henry grew desperate for a male heir, leading him to take desperate measures. He also had an eye for good looking girls, and since he was the most powerful man in the land, who was to stop him? But caught in the grip of these twin obsessions he was a vulnerable man, and there were plenty of scheming nobles eager to take advantage.

Philippa Gregory's enormously successful novel popularised the story of the Boleyn girls' rivalry, and it also showed how they were exploited by their father and uncles, shadowy figures anxious for social advancement. As one might expect, this extravagant film adaptation celebrates the former whilst softening the latter.

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In trying to present Anne as a modern heroine it puts her very much in charge of her own destiny, revealing little of her terror at the fate she knew must await her if she failed to keep the King's favour. Only in the latter part of the film, which is rather rushed, do we see her start to panic, which rather insults her intelligence, suggesting she didn't understand the magnitude of what she was doing. This is all the more unfortunate as it was Anne's shrewd understanding - that she was hurting her sister, wrecking a marriage, challenging the authority of the Pope himself and putting her own life in danger in the process - that was always at the core of what made her interesting and sexy, a remarkable individual despite the manipulation she could not escape.

Portraying a woman of such character is no easy task, and it's unfortunate that the task has fallen to Natalie Portman. Whilst adequate in the role, she has none of the fire which might explain why Henry's passion for her would echo down the centuries. This might be easier to ignore if she weren't so often onscreen with Scarlet Johansson. Though the part of Mary has been much reduced from the novel, Johansson, all subtle glances and understated body language, is still able to make a great deal of it. Even when relegated to the background of the story, she is a strong and affecting presence.

Eric Bana is passable as Henry in a version more sympathetic than the historical figure deserved - at the end we see him looking mournful in a castle, not partying on a barge with his new girlfriend, as he did in real life. His intelligence and his diplomatic skills come through better here than in many previous films, making him seem more realistic as a ruler. Though she has only a little screen time, Ana Torrent is more than a match for him as Katherine of Aragon. All the smaller roles are well cast, with Kristin Scott Thomas especially good as the girls' mother, though fans of the book may consider her inappropriately sympathetic.

Despite its various flaws, this is a highly watchable and entertaining film. The costuming work is wonderful, with many outfits apparently copied directly from historical drawings; the sets are similarly impressive. Outdoor scenes give a proper sense of the scale of the country and thus of the vulnerability of every noble to Henry's forces, no matter where they might hide. There's drama on an epic scale, with the tension mounting as Anne tries to string the King along and consolidate her own power base. We know it can only end in tears, but it's gripping nonetheless.

As entertainment, this is a royal treat - but as a slice of history, it's nothing to lose your head over.

Reviewed on: 03 Mar 2008
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A dramatisation of the Boleyn sisters' competition for the affections of King Henry VIII.
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Director: Justin Chadwick

Writer: Peter Morgan, based on the book by Philippa Gregory.

Starring: Natalie Portman, Scarlett Johansson, Eric Bana, Jim Sturgess, Mark Rylance, Kristin Scott Thomas, David Morrissey, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ana Torrent, Eddie Redmayne

Year: 2008

Runtime: 115 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: UK, US


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