Sunday 3 May 2015

Movie Review: The Other Boleyn Girl (2008)

A fast-paced romp through the politics of sleeping with King Henry VIII, The Other Boleyn Girl plays fast and loose with history but is an undeniably enjoyable film.

It's the 1500s in England, and the Boleyn family are at the fringes of the royal circle. Thomas and Elizabeth Boleyn (Mark Rylance and Kristin Scott Thomas) have daughters Anne and Mary (Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson), who are both attractive and looking to get married. The older Anne is more outspoken and independent, while Mary is more demure and marries William Carey (Benedict Cumberbatch). The girls' uncle is the Duke Of Norfolk (David Morrissey), and he is aware that the marriage of King Henry VIII (Eric Bana) to Catherine of Aragon (Ana Torrent) is in trouble, since she cannot bear him a son.

The power hungry Duke spots an opportunity to gain influence by arranging for the King to take Anne as a lover. But the plan is quickly knocked off course when Henry falls under the spell of Mary instead, and takes her into his inner court as his mistress. Anne feels deeply betrayed, and a rift develops between the two sisters. Anne is hustled off to France to prevent her from interfering with the Boleyn family's growing influence. But Anne will not settle for being the "other" Boleyn girl, and soon her opportunity arrives to influence not just the King but the entire history of England.

Based on the novel by Phillippa Gregory and directed by Justin Chadwick, The Other Boleyn Girl does not pretend to be a historical record. Rather, this is a satisfying history lite story of naked ambition, sibling rivalry, and the little events that cause big ripples in the destiny of nations. That all the characters are based on real people and similar events actually did happen is just an intriguing bonus.

Proximity to the King is the crackling current feeding the cascading torrent of passion. For the Duke of Norfolk, tempting Henry with Anne is a pathway to influence. For Mary, acting as the King's lover is a duty not to be questioned. And for Anne, gaining the King's affection is a game of naked personal ambition and family one-upmanship. Only Elizabeth Boleyn, the mother unapprovingly witnessing her family's grab for power, attempts to resist the prevailing tide, but hers is a voice that will be prophetic rather than heeded. The thrust to satisfy the King's lust ends with fragments of discontent littered all over the family's destiny. And at a national level, Henry's manic drive to divorce and remarry creates an entirely new religious reality in Europe.

The Other Boleyn Girl is sharply edited to the point of abruptness. Breaking with the tradition of costume dramas requiring prolonged scenes of languid conversation, the better to linger on lavish dresses and impressive set designs, Chadwick instead aims for a snappy pace and keeps his scenes deliberately concise. The briskness ensures the film never descends into the heavy sands of weightiness for the sake of history; but is does come with some unusually snappy character decisions and some significant time compression between key events. Some seemingly critical incidents are skipped altogether and just commented on, including Henry's fall during the fox hunt and Anne's time in Paris.

Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson are a delight to watch, and they carry the emotional weight of the film. Portman has the showier, more intense role, but Johansson holds as much influence with an understated and ultimately more complex performance. Eric Bana offers a unique take on King Henry VIII, emphasizing the frenzy caused by the absolute need to father a son, at any cost. One or the other of the Boleyn girls will provide his heir to the throne, but not in any manner that the King would have predicted.

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