A film review by Craig J. Koban
THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL
2008, PG-13, 115 mins.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
and an equally refined screenwriter in Peter Morgan, who wrote 2006’s
(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
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
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).
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
In short: it’s a real, juicy ride that left me completely besotted.