A film review by Craig J. Koban


2008, PG-13, 115 mins.

Anne Boleyn: Natalie Portman / Mary Boleyn: Scarlett Johansson / Henry Tudor: Eric Bana / George Boleyn: Jim Sturgess / Sir Thomas Boleyn: Mark Rylance / Lady Elizabeth Boleyn: Kristin Scott Thomas

Directed by Justin Chadwick / Written by Peter Morgan, based on the novel by Philippa Gregory

With the hedonistic impulses of a Harlequin romance novel and the catty, adolescent battle of wills akin to a teen high school movie, THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL plays off more like a lurid and tawdry soap opera than a wonderfully realized historical, costume melodrama.  The film – based on the controversial book by British author Philippa Gregory, which spawned four sequels – laughingly mocks a strident adherence to historical veracity and tries to forge a subtle level of introverted camp and sex appeal: it could have very easily been called MEAN ELIZABETHAN GIRLS.  

The film is easy to laugh at and not with, which may or may not sound like a good endorsement.  The interplay and dialogue is often unintentionally hilarious and kind of leaves a sly grin on your face.  One of my favorites involves a father politely asking his daughter if she had succumbed to any “irregular intimacies.”  That made me laugh, as did another line later in the film where one of the main characters stands up and shrieks, “Nothing seems to arouse the king anymore!”  Seeing good actors uttering these lines with a strong, pomp and circumstance weightiness and theatrical swagger is amusing. 

Yet, I think that – in the long run – there is a juicy level of entertainment value out of this material.  And by “juicy” I mean to say that this film has a little bit of everything: sex, betrayal, adultery, political manipulation and maneuvering, bastard children, uber-hot scheming sisters, one hunky King caught in the middle of said scheming sisters, public executions via beheadings, incest, and…yes…irregular intimacies, whatever that may mean.  Oh, but THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL also has some messages and themes, like how lust for power may or may not force yourself to get your brother to impregnate you after you’ve miscarried the king’s baby in order to hide the fact from the king to avoid being beheaded as a heretic.  In other words: lust for power leads to drastic measures of the decidedly icky kind…namely sex with one’s brother. 

If you're sensing a sarcastic tone, it is indeed implied, seeing as THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL is a kind of droll and infectiously sensationalistic, which for our media-savvy times of publishing celebrity stories of wicked excess and debauchery, seems to fit right in.  It’s easy to be fooled by this film’s façade:  It has some highly competent actors (namely Natalie Portman, Scarlett Johansson and Eric Bana), has a decent director in Justin Chadwick and an equally refined screenwriter in Peter Morgan, who wrote 2006’s THE QUEEN (one of the best films of its year) and THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND.  Because of those credits, if you are assuming that this is a work of historical refinement…you will be disappointed.  However, if you’re looking for a work about hot young women scheming and manipulating their way into the King’s bed and into infamy, then this is your film. 

The film takes place in 16th Century England and those hoping for some semblance of historical insight may be deluding themselves.  This is not a portrait of a troubled King Henry and how he nearly tore apart a country due to his desire for a male heir, nor is it a film that gives us real insight into courtly life within and outside of royalty.  No, this is simply a tale of lust and betrayal.  Of course, there is a three way fling between King Henry VIII (Eric Bana) and the two Boleyn girls, Anne (Portman) and Mary (Johansson) who try as they will to win the affections of the King in order to help spawn a lifetime of prosperity for their family.  This is predicated on the wishing of the girls’ father and more forcefully by their uncle (David Morrissey, more on him later).  

Anne is reluctant to become the King’s mistress and future mother to his much desired baby boy heir (which the King’s wife, Catherine, simply can’t seem to provide), but she jumps at the chance to secure a place of prosperity for her family.  The king becomes easily smitten by Anne (mainly because, let’s face it, she’s Natalie Portman), but fate steps in and the King eventually distances himself from her after an embarrassing accident.  Mary swoops in and helps nurse Henry’s wounds and he develops a quick fondness for her.  

All of this truly bothers the girls’ mother, Lady Elizabeth (Kristin Scott Thomas), who at one point throws her hands in the air and screams one of the film’s many side-splitting lines, “Our daughters are being traded like cattle for the advancement of men!”  Even more hot and bothered is Anne, who becomes very, very jealous by the way Mary has become Henry’s new go-to adulterous squeeze.  Anne confronts her sister with the tenacity and petulance of a jilted teenager saying, “All I know is that a man who didn't know who you were was with you in that room for a half-hour and came out completely besotted!”  I must be honest…I had to look up besotted in an online dictionary.  It means, “…to muddle or stupefy, as with alcoholic liquor or infatuation. 

Hmmmm...besotted, indeed.

Mary does become the King’s mistress and bares him a son, but just as things look like they are set for the two, Anne returns to England after a family imposed exile in France (ouch) where she has learned many skills, like the art of using and seducing men of enormous power to do whatever she wants...and to be a conniving little bitch.  Anne’s manipulation of Henry is subtle, if not seriously calculating, as she uses the King’s ego and own sense of self-fulfilling power to her own advantage.  She does this while subverting her sister in his eyes and this is some of the more intriguing moments in THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL, which highlights how one woman literally had the power to undermine an enormously powerful political figure during a time when women never held a place of esteem and circumstance with male figures.  Anne, whether you like her or not, is the film’s most rousing creation: a conceited, selfish, conspiring – but fiercely intelligent and savvy – young girl that really knew how to push buttons to get what she wanted. 

The film does get a little darker as it progresses, seeing the overall arc of Mary and Anne’s story.  I don’t feel obligated to post a spoiler warning here (we’re dealing with history – albeit in a Classic Illustrated manner – here folks).  Anne assumes the title of Queen alongside Henry, which makes him insanely unpopular with the people and the Pope (annulling a marriage back then was a no-no, especially for royalty).  His growing unpopularity made Henry a terribly conflicted man, resenting Anne’s presence.  Anne did have a child -– a girl named Elizabeth - whom, yup, became that same Elizabeth to assume much power later on in history, which is one of the film’s historically interesting footnotes.  However, her efforts to have the boy Henry wanted ended in miscarriage, which made Anne attempt the inconceivable by begging her brother (played in a utterly thankless performance by Jim Sturgess) to assist her with making the King “still think” that she is pregnant.  Do the math.  Like I said…icky.  Needless to say, the very thought of Anne engaging in this unspeakable action was the nail in her coffin and represented the final step in the tragic snowballing of her life in royalty, which ended in public execution. 

The final act of THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL seems to be in stark contrast to the sleazy and sordid opening acts, which does not hurt it overall.  The salacious vibe of the film is what truly will stay with viewers.  The performances are also surprisingly refined and solid considering the oftentimes preposterous and silly dialogue that the actors are forced to speak.  Johansson is fine as the typically meager Boleyn girl Number One, who seems a bit overwhelmed by the sheer unscrupulousness of Anne’s actions.  Anne, in contrast, is the film’s real scene stealer, and Portman – despite having an uneven accent – does a great job of modulating her feistiness, lust for power, and later her sense of helplessness as her fate becomes clear.  Eric Bana may not be the true physical embodiment of Henry, but he imbues in him a sense of moral uncertainty and paranoia (he’s not just presented as a one-note, sex starved adulterer and misogynist).  Perhaps the one actor that stays truest to the film’s overt level of campiness and silliness is David Morrissey, who plays the Boleyn uncle with a level of sheer cornball intrigue.  His hammy and over-the-top line delivery is one of this film’s guilty pleasures. 

Actually…this entire film is a guilty pleasure; a period costume drama that – on one angle – is a cautionary tale of how being lustful and power-hungry can be one’s undoing, but it’s more at home with being a 16th Jerry Springer-styled sex scandal ripe with infidelity, backstabbing, bickering, and emotional instability.  As a heated, spirited, and sassy tale of sexual duplicity and immorality, THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL is an amusing diversion.  As an opulent and fascinating travelogue through history, this film is a whitewashing of facts.  Yet, maybe it’s not trying to be an intelligent and revealing examination of centuries old royalty.  My gut instinct is that THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL is more in love with being a cocktail of schmaltz and sinful intrigue.  I kind have found myself succumbing to its lack of authenticity and applauded its zeal for being humorously bawdy.

In short: it’s a real, juicy ride that left me completely besotted.

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